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"...the Arms Control Association [does] so much to keep the focus on the issues so important to everyone here, to hold our leaders accountable to inspire creative thinking and to press for change. So we are grateful for your leadership and for the unyielding dedication to global nuclear security."
– Lord Des Browne,
Vice Chairman, Nuclear Threat Initiative
U.S. Nuclear Weapons

Lowering Nuclear Risks: An Interview With Former Defense Secretary William Perry

The former Pentagon chief says intercontinental ballistic missiles are not essential to the U.S. deterrent, worries about the risk of nuclear terrorism, and advocates a “major push” on the [CTBT].

January/February 2016

Interviewed by Daniel Horner and Kingston Reif

William Perry, shown in this March 2015 photo, was secretary of defense from 1994 to 1997. (Photo credit: Glenn Fawcett/Defense Department)William Perry is the Michael and Barbara Berberian professor emeritus at Stanford University and a senior fellow at the university’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. He was secretary of defense from 1994 to 1997, having previously served as deputy secretary of defense and undersecretary of defense for research and engineering. He is the author of My Journey at the Nuclear Brink (2015).

Perry spoke by telephone with Arms Control Today on December 8, 2015.Much of the conversation focused on the current impasse in U.S.-Russian relations and the nuclear weapons programs in those two countries.

The interview was transcribed by Elizabeth Philipp. It has been edited for clarity.

ACT: In your book, you write that Russia’s ongoing and planned production of new nuclear delivery systems is likely to motivate Moscow to test new warheads for its new missiles and that you expect it to withdraw from the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty [CTBT] soon and begin those tests. Can you elaborate on why you believe that to be the case?

Perry: First of all, let me say that I don’t have any inside information from anybody in the Russian government. That’s not what my point was. It’s just that I know they are developing new nuclear weapons. They’ve said so themselves. I’m confident that that will lead the weapons designers to request new tests. That will put [Russian President Vladimir] Putin up to a decision. He will have to decide whether to allow that or not. I don’t know what that political decision will be, but I do believe that the pressure to test will be strong. So it will come down to a political decision on Putin’s part. Will he accept their recommendations, or will he think the political costs are too high? One of the reasons the political costs will not be as high as they should be is because we have not yet ratified the CTBT. That makes a decision to test easier for him.

ACT: Given that, is there any feasible way to prevent the resumption of Russian testing?

Perry: The best thing we could do is to ratify the CTBT. That would make the political costs substantially higher for Putin. That might lead him to decide then not to test.

ACT: Following up on the issue of U.S. ratification, even if the United States were to ratify the CTBT tomorrow, entry into force could still be years away if not longer. What steps should the United States pursue in the near term to strengthen the global moratorium against nuclear testing, especially in light of your belief that Russia may be on a path to the resumption of testing?

Perry: I think it’s very important to get China to ratify. I do believe that our ratification will put very strong political pressure on them to ratify, and I believe that they would. If that happens, then I think we’ve got a pretty good case to go forward, pushing to bring the treaty into force even if, let’s say, North Korea does not ratify.

I think a good argument can be made that we should not let an outlier like that stop the whole treaty from coming into force, but that decision is still ahead of us. The first step is to get the U.S. to ratify, then put the pressure to China, and then I think we should go forward with a program to try to bring the treaty into force even if the outliers do not ratify. 

ACT: Shifting to another treaty, the United States has accused Russia of being in violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces [INF] Treaty. Russia has denied the accusation and charged the United States with being in violation of the agreement. How do you evaluate the situation?

Perry: I don’t have enough data to make a judgment on whether or not Russia is in violation. That’s what our government has stated, and that’s all I have to go on. But I do not have an independent judgment of that.

ACT: Do you have any thoughts on how to get out of the impasse that the two countries seem to be in with regard to this violation alleged by the United States?

Perry: On that point, as well as other points of contention we have with Russia, what is badly needed is serious and meaningful dialogue with Russia, which we do not have today, at high levels. So I think it’s imperative for the United States to begin serious dialogue with Russia. It’s imperative for both countries to take the political step of high-level and serious dialogue. Even if there is disagreement, the dialogue is not only desirable, but necessary.

ACT: Okay, is there anything specific with regard to the INF Treaty, or is it all part of the larger picture?

Perry: No, it is a part of the larger picture. I think it is very desirable to keep that treaty in force. But the bigger problem is the bad relations between the United States and Russia, of which this is just a symptom, I think.

ACT: In a recent appearance in Washington, you said that any reasonable definition of deterrence would not require intercontinental ballistic missiles [ICBMs], the land-based leg of the U.S. triad. You argue that ICBMs are unnecessary and destabilizing because they are an attractive target and entail a greater risk of accidental launch than other nuclear weapons. How would you propose to phase out the ICBM leg of the triad?

Perry: I simply would not recapitalize it. If we decide to keep the ICBMs in the force, then in a number of years, not very many years, we have to begin to focus on building the replacements for the first ICBMs. So instead, I would simply let the present force phase out.

ACT: What would you say to the senators and representatives of those states in which U.S. Minuteman III ICBMs are based who say that the missiles and associated bases are an essential part of the U.S. deterrent and vital to the economies of their states?

Perry: I don’t believe it. They’re not an essential part of the deterrent. We have ample deterrence from the submarine force, and certainly if you add the bomber force to that, that’s an overwhelming deterrence force. So I cannot understand the argument that we also need ICBMs for deterrence. We might need ICBMs for other reasons, for geopolitical reasons, but not for deterrence. Any sane nation would be deterred by the incredible striking power of our submarine force.

ACT: You have said that a desire to maintain parity with the Soviet Union and later Russia has been and continues to be a main driver of the size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal and that this approach doesn’t make sense. Why do you believe that parity should no longer guide U.S. force requirements?

Perry: Because I don’t think it has anything to do with deterrence. I think deterrence has to do with our power and our ability to strike. The fact that we need to have, for example, ICBMs in the force, which is a kind of a parity, just doesn’t hold up. I don’t understand the argument that we need to have an equivalent number of weapons and equivalent type of weapons as Russia as an argument for deterrence. That is a political argument, and I understand the political argument. But that’s not an argument for deterrence.

ACT: Do you have in mind a rough number of [warheads], what a U.S. nuclear force should look like, should be composed of?

Perry: Certainly less than the numbers we have now. But I also understand the political argument that as we bring the numbers down, we ought to see if we can find some way of having the Russians come down at the same time, whether that be by a treaty or by some sort of a mutual understanding.

ACT: I want to go back to the larger point about U.S.-Russian relations that you raised before. As you were saying, the relations now are at a very low point. Is there anything that Russia and the United States and maybe other countries could do to improve the situation?

Perry: We have a number of points in common with Russia. So I would think our diplomacy would emphasize trying to strengthen cooperation in the areas in which we feel the need to cooperate, the desirability of cooperating. For example, we did cooperate on the Iranian agreement, and that was a big plus. We certainly have a need to cooperate in the field of terrorism and especially nuclear terrorism, and there are certainly trade areas where we could find a reason for cooperating as well, as we did in the Cold War. We should look at issues of mutual importance—certainly preventing nuclear catastrophe has to be highest on that list—and find a way of cooperating in those areas without having to agree with the Russians or having even political accords with Russians in other areas.

ACT: What would an agreement on nuclear terrorism look like that goes beyond what’s already currently agreed under the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism? What more would they be able to do?

Perry: One of the principal actions would be protecting fissile material on a global basis. The program that the president has initiated, the nuclear [security] summit [process], I think is an excellent example of what we can do along those lines. I certainly applaud the administration for their initiative on the nuclear summit and their continued pursuit of it. I think that all we can be sure of at this point is that there will be one more nuclear summit, the one in Washington next spring. So I would put the highest priority on getting major agreements at that summit meeting, and that could be facilitated by prior discussions with the Russians on what one can mutually hope to accomplish at that nuclear summit. Certainly it’s as much for the security benefit of Russia as it is for the United States to solve nuclear terrorism. So it should be a very powerful argument for working together to get major steps forward on the nuclear summit upcoming this spring.

It’s one thing just to go to the meeting and talk. It’s another thing to go to the meeting with a plan worked out with the Russians ahead of time on what the two of us might be able to accomplish to help get the fissile material controlled in other countries. So I think I would put that number one on the list of areas of cooperation with the Russians that can greatly reduce the danger to both of us of nuclear terrorism.

ACT: Do you believe that that’s realistically achievable in the here and now?

Perry: I certainly do. We have still a few months where we can be meeting and talking with the Russians. So we could have a solid program of accomplishment that we mutually agree on that we would like to see come out of that possibly last summit meeting.

ACT: Switching gears slightly, we understand that you have recently visited a number of U.S. allies in Europe and East Asia to discuss nuclear and other related security policy issues. In your conversations with officials, did they express any concerns about the credibility of the U.S. nuclear deterrent in light of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and increasing Chinese assertiveness in its near abroad?

Perry: No, nobody raised that question with me. It seems clear to me that any informed and objective observer would see that our nuclear deterrent is quite powerful.

The nuclear deterrent, however, does not prevent the Russians from doing many things that are not directly nuclear related. I always have believed and I think events have demonstrated that nuclear deterrence is pretty well limited to deterring a nuclear attack, not deterring many other objectionable actions. During the Cold War, Russia took many actions that were very highly objectionable to us, and our nuclear deterrent did not stop them from taking those actions. Arguably, all that U.S. nuclear weapons have done is stop the Russians from carrying out a nuclear attack on us.

ACT: In any of your conversations, did any officials from allied nations take a position on whether the United States can further reduce the role and number of nuclear weapons in its national strategy?

Perry: The only such issue I have come across, particularly with Japan, is the extent to which our nuclear deterrence is specific to Japan—that is, whether it involved nuclear weapons specifically designed to protect Japan as opposed to general deterrence. That has to do with maintaining shorter-range nuclear weapons. But there’s never been a question that I’m aware of as to whether our long-range nuclear weapons were capable of deterrence. This was an issue we had, as you may remember, back during the Cold War. Even though we had overwhelming capability in our strategic nuclear forces, the Germans felt it necessary to have nuclear forces based in their country to guarantee our deterrence to them, extended deterrence. That was, I think, a misguided judgment on the part of the Germans. But they certainly felt strongly, and as a consequence, we did keep medium-range nuclear weapons based in Germany to give them the confidence of our deterrence. I don’t see that lack of confidence today, though.

ACT: As you write in your book, progress on nuclear disarmament has slowed since the early days of President [Barack] Obama’s first term. How can multilateral disarmament move forward when the forums for multilateral diplomacy, such as the Conference on Disarmament [CD] and the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty [NPT] review conference, appear to be in a stalemate?

Perry: I think they are in a stalemate. I would not say that arms negotiations has slowed; I would say it has stopped. I don’t see any significant action between the U.S. and Russia today that has any chance of moving towards another treaty. I know that many people in the U.S. government that would like to do that and are trying to move in that direction. But they haven’t gotten any two-sided discussions that seem to have any significance going forward yet. I’d say this is not the fault of the U.S. officials; it’s just that Russia isn’t showing any interest in moving forward in nuclear arms agreements. So that’s one of the main issues ahead of us, and if we can get a stronger positive relation with Russia on other issues, we should also be working with them to try to get forward motion again on a follow-on to New START [the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty].

ACT: I was also asking about multilateral diplomacy, not just the bilateral U.S.-Russian interaction. Is there any way to stimulate movement in the CD, to deal with the issues that have divided the NPT members at their last review conference, issues like that? Who needs to take action to do that? Is there anyone besides the U.S. and Russia who can move that process or help move that process?

Perry: Probably yes, but I don’t have a good answer to your question.

ACT: In your book, you write that the development of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program over the past 15 years “is perhaps the most unsuccessful exercise of diplomacy in our country’s history.” What could the George W. Bush and Obama administrations have done differently to avoid this outcome?

Perry: Well, we had a negotiation going with the North Koreans in 2000, which was very close to an agreement. When the administration changed, the Bush administration simply cut off any discussions with the North Koreans. That was demonstrated to be not an effective way of dealing with the North Koreans, but it didn’t seem to me to be a wise way even before we saw the outcome. We should have kept the dialogue going, and that was a big mistake, I think.

ACT: With regard to the Obama administration’s approach to North Korea, how would you assess its strategy toward reducing the threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear program?

Perry: It evidently has not been effective. But I would say, somewhat in their defense, that by the time they got into office, North Korea already had nuclear weapons. In 2001, North Korea did not yet have nuclear weapons. There was an opportunity for a much easier negotiation; it was much more feasible to negotiate with them not to develop nuclear weapons and not to produce nuclear weapons. Once they had nuclear weapons, the negotiation got very much harder. Now the administration had to argue with them to give up what they already have, and so I think the opportunity that was lost was between 2001 and 2008. That was when we had the chance to stop the North Korean nuclear program.

ACT: Given where we are now, what realistically in your view can be achieved at this point to stop and perhaps roll back North Korea’s nuclear weapons program?

Perry: I don’t have any better advice on that than Sig Hecker, the former director of Los Alamos National Laboratory, has given. He said that, given that they already have the nuclear weapons, making our position in the negotiations that they must give them up is a very hard negotiation. So he argues instead to put that aside for the time being and take a more limited goal in diplomacy. It’s what he calls the three noes, which is no new nuclear weapons, no more nuclear weapons, and no selling of nuclear weapons or technology.1 Those are the three noes that he states, and he offers some positive incentives we might give for that to happen. He said that should be the basis of the negotiation. If we ever succeed in that, then we can take the next step in trying to get them to roll back their arsenal. But as far as I can determine, we have not proceeded along the lines of those three noes. That was a tactical approach that Sig had that I supported at the time and still do. I think it was a reasonable approach to dealing with the North. 

ACT: I want to go back to the issue of nuclear terrorism, which we touched on briefly a few minutes ago. You wrote in your book that the threat of nuclear terrorism is the “gravest threat of our time.” Why do you think that’s the case?

Perry: The threat of nuclear weapons is the greatest threat of our time, and nuclear terrorism is the most likely form of it. If you consider the deterrent we have to somebody attacking us with nuclear weapons, it’s very powerful. But we have no deterrent to nuclear terrorism, and it’s relatively easy to imagine how such an attack could happen. So it’s not that it’s as catastrophic as a nuclear war; it’s just it has a much higher probability.

ACT: You mentioned the nuclear security summit process. How successful do you think that’s been in addressing this problem of nuclear terrorism?

Perry: I think it’s the most effective thing we can do because the most likely way for a terrorist to get a nuclear weapon is to get the fissile material and then build a crude, improvised bomb himself. So the biggest obstacle to a terrorist getting a nuclear weapon is getting the fissile material, and the nuclear summit process is specifically addressed to putting fissile material all over the world under much better control or eliminating it.

ACT: So as a result of the nuclear summit process, do you feel less troubled or less concerned than you did, say, seven years ago before the process started? 

Perry: Yes, I do. I mean, there are just fewer opportunities now for a terrorist group to get ahold of the fissile material. But I don’t feel by any means relaxed about this because there’s still a lot of it out there not under really good control. That’s why I think this final nuclear summit next year is so important. It gives us an opportunity to take even stronger actions than we’ve taken in the previous summits, including the opportunity for setting an international standard for the control and protection of fissile material.

ACT: What should be done to continue to focus high-level attention on the problem after the summit is completed? 

Perry: I’m sorry to say that the thing that would really give high-level attention to the problem is a nuclear terrorist incident. Then what had once seemed to be a theoretical possibility will become real. All I’m hoping and working for is that we can find the actions to stop nuclear terrorism without having that triggering event.

ACT: On the question of the likelihood, periodically people say within so-and-so many years there’s such-and-such a percentage chance of a nuclear terrorist incident taking place. People have been saying that for the last 30 years or so, and there hasn’t been one. So what do you think is the likelihood and over what time period?

Perry: I’ve never been able to put a number on it. But I would say it is quite feasible for it to happen in the next year, and I don’t see the actions we have now to keep that from happening as strong enough to give me any comfort that it’s not going to happen. It could happen next year; it could happen the following year. It’s a matter of the terrorist group putting the priority on doing that and putting the resources and the effort to making it happen. But I just don’t know how to put a number on it, a probability on it. Certainly, the likelihood of that happening is much higher than any of the other nuclear catastrophes.

ACT: As President Obama enters his final year in office, what more can he realistically seek to achieve with regard to the ambitious agenda he articulated in his Prague speech in April 2009?2

Perry: Number one, he could put a major effort into making this last nuclear summit a big success. That would be my number-one priority, I think, particularly since it addresses the threat I’m most concerned about, which is nuclear terrorism. Secondly, if he can get a renewed serious dialogue with the Russians, I would try to get a follow-on to New START under way. Third, a major push on the CTBT, however he could go about doing that, to try to get that ratified before he leaves office. That is a very steep uphill climb, and I don’t want to be optimistic. But as I recommend things to the administration, I do recommend that they make a major effort still to try to push that through, not to give up on the ratification of the CTBT. Many people will say that’s an impossible dream, but I would like a major push to achieve ratification.

ACT: Thank you very much for your time; we really appreciate it.

ENDNOTES

1.  See, for example, Siegfried S. Hecker, “North Korea Reactor Restart Sets Back Denuclearization,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, October 17, 2013, http://thebulletin.org/north-korea-reactor-restart-sets-back-denuclearization.

2.  Office of the Press Secretary, The White House, “Remarks by President Barack Obama, Hradcany Square, Prague, Czech Republic,” April 5, 2009.

New Cruise Missile Capability Debated

The United States is planning to purchase a new fleet of nuclear-capable air-launched cruise missiles that will be far more advanced than the missiles they are slated to replace.

January/February 2016

By Kingston Reif

A B-52H bomber releases an unarmed AGM-86B air-launched cruise missile during a test run at the Utah Test and Training Range on September 22, 2014. (Photo credit: Staff Sgt. Roidan Carlson/U.S. Air Force)The United States is planning to purchase a new fleet of nuclear-capable air-launched cruise missiles (ALCMs) that will be far more advanced than the ones they are slated to replace, according to members of Congress and other sources, raising questions about the plan’s consistency with a pledge made by the Obama administration not to provide nuclear weapons with new capabilities.

The development of the new missile also has sparked a debate about whether it could be more “usable” than the existing ALCM, thereby lowering the threshold for when the United States might consider using nuclear weapons.

In a Dec. 15 letter to President Barack Obama urging him to cancel the new cruise missile, also known as the long-range standoff weapon, Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and seven other senators wrote that the “proposed…missile is a significantly altered version” of the existing ALCM.

The letter did not say what specific capabilities the new missile would provide, but claimed the proposal contradicts the policy statement from the 2010 “Nuclear Posture Review [NPR] Report” that efforts to sustain U.S. nuclear weapons “will not support new military missions or provide for new military capabilities.”

“Indeed,” the senators added, “this new cruise missile appears to be designed specifically for improved nuclear war-fighting capabilities.”

The White House disputed the contention that the new ALCM contradicts administration policy. In a Dec. 23 email to Arms Control Today, National Security Council spokesman Ned Price said that U.S. nuclear modernization efforts are “consistent with the President’s strategy laid out in Prague [in a 2009 speech] and in the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review.”

The Defense Department elaborated in a Jan. 5 email. The new missile “will use a refurbished version of the current ALCM warhead” that “will not support new military missions or provide for new military capabilities,” said Army Lt. Col. Joe Sowers. Rather, by developing the new weapons system, the United States “will preserve existing military capability in the face of evolving threats,” Sowers said.

The NPR Report’s prohibition on the development of new military missions and capabilities specifically refers to improvements to nuclear warheads, not their delivery systems.

Nuclear-armed ALCMs are part of the U.S. nuclear triad of strategic delivery systems consisting of land-based missiles, submarine-launched missiles, and long-range bombers, which can carry ALCMs and gravity bombs. ALCMs, which are currently carried by the B-52H long-range bomber, are standoff weapons that can attack targets at distances beyond the range of air defense systems.

The Air Force’s lone remaining ALCM variant is the AGM-86B, up to 20 of which can be carried by a B-52H bomber. Multiple life-extension programs have kept the missile, which was first fielded in 1982 with a planned service life of 10 years, in service for more than 30 years. The Air Force is planning to retain the missile until 2030.

Current Air Force plans call for the procurement of about 1,000 new nuclear-capable missiles, roughly double the size of the existing fleet of ALCMs. (See ACT, June 2015.) Government and think tank estimates suggest that the total cost of building the new missile and refurbishing the associated warhead would be about $25 billion over 20 years. 

New Capabilities Sought

Although the Defense Department has declined to comment publicly on the capabilities of the new ALCM, the limited information the department has released, as well as information from several other sources, points to a missile that will have new capabilities.

In a Feb. 25, 2015, request for information to contractors on the desired performance of the new missile’s engine, the Air Force said it was seeking potential improvements in the performance of the current engine technology, including a possible supersonic option, which would allow the missile to fly at a velocity of at least 768 miles per hour. The current ALCM can travel at a speed of approximately 550 miles per hour.

Pentagon officials also have said that the new fleet of cruise missiles will be compatible with not only the B-52H, but also the B-2 and planned long-range strike bombers. It is not clear if deploying the missile on the more advanced B-2 and long-range strike aircraft would allow those planes to hit targets that the B-52H could not reliably reach.

Advocates of the new missile argue that it provides a continuing ability to quickly add missiles to bombers. They note that the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty does not cap the number of weapons that can be carried on each bomber.

The Air Force told Arms Control Today last May that, despite the current plan to roughly double the size of the ALCM fleet, the requirements for nuclear-armed cruise missiles “have not increased.”

A source who has been briefed on the new ALCM program disputed the need for such a large missile procurement, saying in an interview that, “in exchange for” a more reliable and capable missile, the department “should maintain a smaller hedge.”

The source said the technical characteristics of the new missile are still being defined because the program is still in the early development stage but that the goal is to increase the range and accuracy of the missile. The source said another goal is to incorporate the latest stealth features, making the missile much more difficult for adversary air defense systems to detect.

Such features would comport with the Defense Department’s primary rationale for the new missile, namely to ensure that the bomber leg of the triad can strike targets in the face of increasingly sophisticated adversary air defenses. The department has expressed concern that the current ALCM is losing its ability to continue to penetrate these defenses in addition to becoming increasingly unreliable.

Senator Ed Markey (D-Mass.), shown above in a March 2015 photo, organized a letter to President Barack Obama opposing a new cruise missile. (Photo credit: Paul Marotta/Getty Images)In response to questions submitted by lawmakers after a Feb. 26, 2015, hearing of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, Brian McKeon, deputy undersecretary of defense for policy, said maintenance of the existing ALCM “is becoming increasingly difficult, and its reliability in the next decade is not assured even with substantial investment.”

The source who had been briefed on the program said that, due to the reliability concerns, the ALCM is currently “not part of the planning scenarios for nuclear use.” He added that the missile could be maintained for the next five years but, “after that, it’s almost a dud.”

Some former officials and experts say it should not be surprising that the new cruise missile will be more advanced than the existing ALCM.

In a December email exchange with Arms Control Today, Al Mauroni and Mel Deaile of the Air Force Center for Unconventional Weapons Studies said they would expect the Defense Department “to improve military capabilities over past, aging weapon systems that continue to be fielded well beyond their originally-designed service life.” Mauroni and Deaile added that their comments did not necessarily reflect official U.S. positions.

Regarding the proposed life extension program for the ALCM warhead, known as the W80-4, the source who has been briefed said a goal of that program is to permit “greater flexibility in actually picking” the desired yield. The ALCM warhead is believed have a built-in option to allow detonation at lower or higher yields.

According to the source, increasing the accuracy of the missile allows for more flexibility in the warhead yield, thus enhancing the overall capability of the weapons system.

The source criticized the Obama administration for claiming the new missile program is consistent with the NPR Report. Focusing narrowly on whether the warhead’s nuclear explosive package is a new design, the source said, “allows the military to increase or change capabilities” in other areas of the weapons system “while shielding [itself] behind the narrow letter” of the report “and avoiding public debate.”

Lowering the Threshold

The source said the briefings made it clear that the Pentagon is envisioning potential uses for the new cruise missile that go beyond “the original mission space” of the ALCM.

For example, the source said that, in the event of a major conflict with China, the Pentagon has talked about using the new missile to destroy Chinese air defenses as a warning to Beijing against escalating the conflict further.

In testimony to the strategic forces subcommittee on April 15, 2015, Robert Scher, assistant secretary of defense for strategy, plans, and capabilities, said an additional rationale for the new ALCM is to preserve the president’s ability to respond “to a limited or large-scale failure of deterrence,” but did not provide details.

In a Dec. 14 statement to Arms Control Today, Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.), a member of the strategic forces panel, said claims that the new cruise missile will provide the president with more flexible response options “accept that a nuclear conflict could be controlled through the deliberate use of nuclear force.”

He said he disagreed with that approach because “[t]here is no such thing as a limited nuclear war.”

A Senate Republican staffer offered a different view in a Dec. 15 email. In developing the new missile, the United States should be prepared to match “Russia’s new emphasis” on the use of tactical nuclear weapons “to de-escalate a potential conflict” and “force developments by other nuclear powers,” the staffer said.

In a Dec. 17 interview, a different congressional staffer said it is not yet clear what features the new cruise missile and associated warhead will have, but expressed concern that the Defense and Energy departments will choose features that make the weapons system “more usable,” thus blurring the line between nuclear and conventional weapons.

Others dispute the notion that a more capable nuclear weapon increases the likelihood of its use. Retired Gen. C. Robert Kehler, former commander of U.S. Strategic Command, said in a Dec. 15 email that the new cruise missile will not lower the nuclear threshold because “the height of the nuclear threshold isn’t directly related to the so-called ‘usability’ of the weapons.”

Kehler, who is an affiliate of Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation, said U.S. “planners have to balance US policy regarding ‘new’ nuclear capabilities against the realities of weapon design and the evolution of technology and the threat.”

He added, “I believe we can strike the right balance while still meeting the intent of the [president’s] policy.”


Correction: The original version of this article mischaracterized the party affiliation of one the signers of the letter organized by Sen. Ed Markey. The signers were Markey, six other Democratic senators, and Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont who caucuses with the Democrats.

Hill Denies Money for Submarine Fund

Congress in December declined to fund a special account to pay for a dozen new nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines amid ongoing concerns about the high cost of the boats...

January/February 2016

By Kingston Reif

An Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine returns to Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay in Georgia on February 6, 2013. (Photo credit: Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class James Kimber/U.S. Navy)Congress in December declined to provide funding for a special budget account it created in 2014 to pay for a dozen new nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines amid ongoing concerns about the high cost of the boats and a debate about whether the fund would save money.

Lawmakers also voted to withhold 75 percent of the Army’s budget request for the Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System (JLENS) after part of the blimp-borne radar system crashed in northeastern Pennsylvania on Oct. 28.

Those provisions were part of the fiscal year 2016 omnibus appropriations bill, which passed the House and the Senate on Dec. 18. Fiscal year 2016 started on Oct. 1, 2015, and runs until Sept. 30.

Navy officials have repeatedly warned that the service’s projected long-term budget is not large enough to accommodate the program to build the new submarines, known as the Ohio-class replacement program, and meet its needs for conventional ships. (See ACT, October 2013.) The Navy estimates that the 12 planned boats, which are slated to be purchased between 2021 and 2035 and replace the existing fleet of 14 Ohio-class subs, will cost $139 billion to develop and build.

In an attempt to address the Navy’s concerns, the fiscal year 2015 National Defense Authorization Act created the National Sea-Based Deterrence Fund, a separate budget account outside the Navy’s regular shipbuilding account that would provide a mechanism for the Navy to buy the new boats without reducing funding for its other shipbuilding programs. The authorization bill for the current fiscal year, which President Barack Obama signed on Nov. 25, expands the purview of the fund and provides the Navy with special acquisition authorities, such as the ability to buy components for multiple boats in a single bulk purchase, which supporters say could reduce the cost of the new submarines.

But critics, including Frank Kendall, the Pentagon’s top acquisition official, maintain that the fund is a gimmick because extra monies will have to be found somewhere in the Pentagon’s budget with or without the fund. The critics also argue that Congress can authorize more-efficient acquisition practices in the absence of a separate account.

The actual transfer of money to the fund has to be approved by lawmakers through the appropriations process. The House defense appropriations subcommittee, which has been critical of the fund, attempted to prohibit the transfer of fiscal year 2016 monies to the account. But the full House overruled the subcommittee ban, which the full Appropriations Committee had accepted, in approving two amendments to the defense appropriations bill that removed the prohibition and made $3.5 billion available for transfer. The Senate Appropriations Committee version of the bill did not authorize the transfer of money to the fund.

The final omnibus bill reflects the Senate position and does not approve money for the fund.

The omnibus bill also takes a hard line on the JLENS program, slashing $30 million from the budget request of $40.6 million due to “test schedule delays.” In the Oct. 28 incident, one of the two tethered blimps that make up the current test deployment of the system detached from its mooring station near Baltimore, dragging 6,700 feet of cable for three hours before finally coming to rest. (See ACT, December 2015.) The system is designed to detect and track objects such as cruise missiles and other airborne threats.

In a December email exchange with Arms Control Today, Maj. Beth Smith, a spokeswoman for the North American Aerospace Defense Command, said an Army investigation to determine the cause of the incident is “still ongoing” and could take 90 days to complete. A decision about whether to continue the planned three-year test of the system’s capability to contribute to cruise missile defense “will be made following the investigation’s conclusion,” she added.

In a Jan. 5 email to Arms Control Today, an aide to Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), vice chairman of the Senate defense appropriations subcommittee, said that “after more than $2.7 billion invested in the program, continuing criticism of its reliability, and the near-tragedy in October when the aerostat broke free from its tether,” the omnibus bill “does not support continuation” of the test of the system in fiscal year 2016.

Signed by Obama on Dec. 18, the omnibus appropriations bill is a $1.1 trillion conglomeration of 12 appropriations bills that had to be passed to keep the government operating. The bill was made possible by an Oct. 26 agreement between the White House and key congressional leaders on new spending levels for fiscal years 2016 and 2017.

Nuclear Modernization

The omnibus bill largely supported the Obama administration’s proposed funding hike for programs to sustain and to rebuild nuclear-armed missiles, submarines, and bombers and their associated nuclear warheads and supporting infrastructure. (See ACT, March 2015.)

The bill includes the requested amount of $1.4 billion for the Navy’s Ohio-class replacement program, an increase of $100 million above the fiscal year 2015 appropriation, and $75.2 million for the Air Force’s effort to develop a replacement for Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), an increase of $68.3 million over last year’s appropriation.

The Pentagon’s Frank Kendall speaks at the Farnborough air show in the United Kingdom on July 14, 2014. (Photo credit: Carl Court/AFP/Getty Images)The bill also provides the requested amount of $8.9 billion for nuclear weapons activities conducted by the Energy Department’s semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), an increase of $667 million, or 8 percent, above the fiscal year 2015 appropriation. The appropriation for weapons activities includes $195 million to begin refurbishing the existing nuclear air-launched cruise missile (ALCM) warhead, an increase of $186 million above last year’s appropriation of $9.4 million.

The omnibus bill provides $16.1 million for the Air Force’s program to develop a new nuclear ALCM to deliver the refurbished warhead, a 56 percent reduction below the request of $36.6 million, and $736 million for the program to build up to 100 new long-range strategic bombers, a 41 percent reduction below the request of $1.3 billion. These reductions reflect schedule delays that decreased the budget requirements for both programs in fiscal year 2016 below the levels that were originally anticipated.

In addition, the bill includes a policy provision prohibiting the use of fiscal year 2016 funds “to reduce or to prepare to reduce” the number of deployed and nondeployed U.S. strategic nuclear delivery systems below the levels the Pentagon has said it will retain as it adjusts its forces to meet the requirements of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty by the treaty’s implementation deadline of 2018. (See ACT, May 2014.)

Missile Defense Gets Increase

The omnibus bill provides $15 million in unrequested funding “to expedite the construction and deployment of urgently needed missile defense assets in various locations within the Continental United States, including Alaska and Hawaii.”

The bill does not specify whether this money can be used to begin building a third missile defense interceptor site on the U.S. East Coast to augment existing defenses in Alaska and California against a limited ICBM attack.

The House version of the fiscal year 2016 military construction appropriations bill included $30 million to begin early planning and design activities for a third site. The Senate version of the bill did not include this funding.

In a Dec. 23 email, Missile Defense Agency (MDA) spokesman Richard Lehner said the agency is currently “assessing” its options for spending the additional $15 million. He added that “no construction [is] planned for an East Coast site” as there has been “no decision to construct a site.”

The Defense Department announced in January 2014 that it would conduct environmental impact studies for four possible missile defense sites in the eastern United States, as directed by Congress. (See ACT, March 2014.) Lehner said these studies are scheduled to be completed by the end of fiscal year 2016.

Overall, the omnibus bill provides approximately $8.1 billion for the MDA, an increase of $175 million above the administration request.

MOX and the Alternative

Lawmakers provided the NNSA with a small amount of money to begin work on an alternative to the mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel fabrication plant at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina. The MOX fuel program is designed to turn surplus plutonium from the U.S. nuclear weapons program into fuel for power reactors.

Of the $345 million the administration requested for construction of the MOX fuel plant, the omnibus bill provides $340 million for construction and $5 million to begin early planning and design activities for the “dilute and dispose” approach, which would down-blend the plutonium with an inert material for direct disposal in a repository. The bill prohibits the NNSA from actually diluting plutonium.

The language on the MOX fuel plant represents the latest round of a long-running battle over the best way to handle the surplus weapons plutonium.

The omnibus bill includes $1.7 billion for the NNSA’s fissile material security and nonproliferation efforts, the same as the budget request and an increase of $90.7 million, or 5.6 percent, above the fiscal year 2015 appropriation

BOOK REVIEW: Nuclear Weapons and Nixon’s Madman Theory

William Burr and Jeffrey P. Kimball’s new book on President Richard Nixon’s use of coercive nuclear feints during the Vietnam War should put an end to academic debates...

December 2015

Reviewed by Michael Krepon

Nixon’s Nuclear Specter: The Secret Alert of 1969, Madman Diplomacy, and the Vietnam War
By William Burr and Jeffrey P. Kimball
University Press of Kansas, 2015, 448 pp.

One debating point in academic circles about nuclear weapons is whether they confer leverage in crises and in war.1 For those confused by or skeptical of the methodologies employed in these arguments, the best way to reach a conclusion is by delving deeply into case studies.

There will be no better book-length case study on coercive nuclear diplomacy than the one just written by William Burr and Jeffrey P. Kimball, Nixon’s Nuclear Specter: The Secret Alert of 1969, Madman Diplomacy, and the Vietnam War. Burr is one of the keepers of the National Security Archive, an essential resource for researchers, writers, and diplomatic practitioners who wish to be informed by history. Kimball is a professor emeritus at Miami University in Ohio and the author of Nixon’s Vietnam War. (He also is the father of Arms Control Today’s publisher.) Burr and Kimball document in significant detail the story of how, in 1969, President Richard Nixon and national security adviser Henry Kissinger sought to avoid a “long game” in Vietnam. In October 1969, they authorized coercive nuclear feints designed to incline North Vietnam to be more receptive to U.S. offers and the Kremlin to be more helpful in arranging an early settlement.

The modus operandi of Nixon and Kissinger for Vietnam was similar to the one they used for the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) with the Soviet Union. They set in motion bureaucratic inquiries into policy options that they did not intend to pursue, operated through irregular channels, and tried to keep some key individuals out of the loop.

Burr and Kimball were not granted access to the Kissinger papers at the Library of Congress, which will remain closed to all but a privileged few until five years after his death—a constraint that the authors declare to be “the last standing abuse of power of the Nixon era.” They also did not gain access to archives in China, Russia, or Vietnam to offer greater insight into how these countries assessed the motives and intentions behind Nixon’s nuclear messaging.

They still managed to gather enough material to provide great detail on the veiled nuclear alert and to conclude that it was directed primarily against Moscow. They also provide compelling arguments for why these feints failed in their intended purpose. This book should put an end to academic debates over the diplomatic utility of nuclear weapons to leverage outcomes, but it probably will not.

During the Vietnam War, the United States possessed the largest and most capable nuclear arsenal in the world. It was bogged down in a brutal, extended war with a state that did not possess nuclear weapons. North Vietnam was helpless to stop U.S. aerial bombardment and could not be sure that its patron, the Soviet Union, would respond militarily to U.S. nuclear strikes on North Vietnam. Even under these circumstances, the Nixon administration’s attempts at coercive nuclear diplomacy failed miserably.

The Soviet Union failed to react in hoped-for ways, nor did it overreact. Evidence of the failure of veiled nuclear threats in the fall of 1969 can be found in the war’s prolongation until the armistice agreement signed in January 1973 and ultimately in the collapse of South Vietnam in 1975, after what Nixon and Kissinger termed a “decent interval” of two years.

A case can be made that more conventional military means of suasion—for example, the stepped-up U.S. bombing and mining campaigns in 1972—had more influence on the North’s leadership than the veiled nuclear threats. Burr and Kimball argue otherwise. They conclude with reasonable evidence that these endgame measures were directed more at President Nguyen Van Thieu of South Vietnam, who was balking at the terms that Kissinger was negotiating, rather than the North Vietnamese leadership.

Most of this book is about Vietnam. The portrayals of Nixon and Kissinger are by now familiar, with new flourishes recently added by Bob Woodward’s book The Last of the President’s Men, based on a trove of documents and the recollections of Alexander Butterfield, Nixon’s deputy chief of staff. In the Burr-Kimball book, Nixon and Kissinger sometimes egg each other on. Kissinger flatters Nixon while occasionally evading Nixon’s exasperated instructions. The tide of the Vietnam War and anti-war sentiment are working against them; escalation measures succeed more in inflaming domestic opposition than in bringing the war to a satisfactory conclusion.

Those interested in whether nuclear weapons provide political utility can profit from reading the first chapter of Burr and Kimball’s book, which summarizes nuclear threats made prior to the Nixon administration, as well as the chapter providing particulars about the 1969 nuclear alert, which was characterized as a “readiness test” to avoid raising domestic and diplomatic hackles.

The record of senior U.S. officials believing that nuclear weapons could provide diplomatic leverage begins with President Harry Truman and Secretary of War Henry Stimson after World War II, when they initially considered the atomic bomb to be a “master card,” and Secretary of State James Byrnes, who believed that nuclear weapons would make the Soviet Union “more manageable.” Yet, Truman declined to use nuclear weapons during the Korean War, and Stimson soon had second thoughts and sought to eliminate these weapons.

President Dwight Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles spoke repeatedly about the utility of nuclear weapons, but they too backed away from use in Korea and Vietnam. Military figures argued for restraint because of the absence of suitable targets and the requirements for a large troop presence after using these weapons. Diplomats warned about the likelihood that such use would horrify U.S. allies in Europe and the prospective alienation and outrage in Asia. Other concerns related to the uncertainties of Soviet and Chinese responses. These arguments were persuasive.

The Eisenhower administration faced more crises with nuclear dimensions than any of its predecessors or successors. In September 1954, the Strategic Air Command (SAC) went on alert after the shelling of Quemoy and Matsu, two islands held by Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist government off the coast of mainland China. In January 1955, the Eisenhower administration ostentatiously moved nuclear-capable aircraft closer to the Taiwan Strait. SAC readiness levels were raised again in July 1958 during a crisis in Lebanon and yet again in response to heightened threat levels in the Middle East and along the Taiwan Strait in early 1959. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev also used nuclear threats during the October 1956 crises sparked by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal.

The absence of battlefield use during the Eisenhower administration was pivotal in establishing what international relations scholar Nina Tannenwald calls a taboo against using nuclear weapons.2 After two presidents, a Democrat and a Republican, managed to avoid using nuclear weapons during the Korean War and in multiple flash points in the Middle East and Asia, the bar was set extremely high for Nixon and Kissinger. The administration of Lyndon Johnson did not seriously consider using nuclear weapons in Vietnam.

Nixon brought to the White House the conviction that his predecessors acted wisely in making nuclear threats, and he was determined to use coercive nuclear diplomacy to shorten the Vietnam War. Kissinger was on Nixon’s wavelength, heartily endorsing the use of conventional force and nuclear threats to bring the excruciating and costly war to a close. The two men considered both tracks in 1969 and settled initially on nuclear feints. Left with the prospect of a long war when this failed, they then chose to raise the ante by conventional means.

Burr and Kimball present no evidence that Nixon and Kissinger were serious about nuclear weapons use but ample evidence that they were intent on nuclear coercion to help persuade Moscow to use its good offices in Hanoi to shorten the war. Both men were convinced that nuclear threats could be translated into leverage even though the track record of previous threats was ambiguous at best. It was as if the absence of horrific consequences when threats were conveyed equaled a successful application of influence even when, as in the cases cited above, outcomes were either indifferent to or immune from nuclear threat-making.

Nixon’s distinctive stamp on coercive nuclear diplomacy was to leave the impression that he might just be off his rocker, thereby lending credence to threats that seemed implausible to Hanoi and Moscow. Nixon apparently remained convinced of the utility of nuclear threat-making long after his resignation from the presidency. He told an interviewer at Time in 1985 that he considered Khrushchev to be a master of this art “because he scared the hell out of people.”

Nixon described this approach as the “Madman Theory,” a phrase he coined during his presidential campaign in 1968 when he spoke with his prospective chief of staff, H.R. (Bob) Haldeman, whose notes of the conversation appeared in Haldeman’s book The Ends of Power: “I call it the Madman Theory, Bob. I want the North Vietnamese to believe I’ve reached the point where I might do anything to stop the war. We’ll just slip the word to them that, ‘for God’s sake, you know Nixon is obsessed about communism. We can’t restrain him when he’s angry—and he has his hand on the nuclear button.’”3

Burr and Kimball define the Madman Theory as “[t]hreatening an adversary with the use of extreme or excessive force—force that normal people would consider disproportionate to the issues in dispute and, beyond that, senselessly dangerous because it risked a larger conflict that would also imperil the vital interests and security of the threatener. Adversaries would or might assume that the threatener was genuinely crazy—even though he was not—and therefore capable of irrational, imprudent, unpredictable acts.”

The alert, carried out between October 13 and 30, 1969, was termed the “JCS [Joint Chiefs of Staff] Readiness Test,” or “Increased Readiness Posture.” The American public was not told about the alert, but some journalists and congressional staffers got wind of it. NATO allies were kept in the dark. Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird and his military assistant, Colonel Robert Pursley, were apprised of the plan. Secretary of State William Rogers was not directly informed of the reasons behind it, and even the JCS chairman, General Earle Wheeler, might not have been, although both men quickly learned the reasons for these feints. (Nixon and Kissinger executed similar maneuvers bypassing Rogers prior to and during negotiations on the SALT I treaty.)

Commanders in the field who received orders to increase readiness for the employment of nuclear weapons, such as raising the number of bombers and tankers on ground alert, were kept in the dark about the geostrategic game plan behind these moves. They raised objections to actions that would degrade pilot training and proficiency while worrying allies. Other particulars of the readiness test included radio silence, increased surveillance of Soviet shipping, higher alert rates for SAC aircraft, the dispersal of bombers, and increased U.S. reconnaissance flights.

These readiness measures were intended to get the Kremlin’s attention but not so much as to bring the superpowers to the precipice. The Pentagon’s orders to commanders in the field sought to draw a fine line between avoiding steps that might be deemed threatening and provocative while taking “unusual and significant” measures. The DEFCON—a formalized sequence of alert levels for crises with nuclear consequences—was not raised during the readiness test, as it was subsequently during the 1973 crisis in the Middle East.

The readiness test ended amid much puzzlement and ineffectuality less than three weeks after it began. It failed to mobilize the Kremlin to do the Nixon administration’s bidding with North Vietnam for several reasons. The means Nixon and Kissinger employed for coercive nuclear diplomacy were undercut by their concern over domestic and allied blowback. It proved impossible to scare the Kremlin sufficiently without scaring the U.S. public and European and Pacific allies. When Nixon met with Anatoly Dobrynin, the Soviet ambassador to the United States, during the readiness test to underscore U.S. messaging, the wily envoy, having been through the crucible of the Cuban missile crisis, correctly interpreted the mixed messages he received as bluff.

Confusion and constraints were compounded because of Nixon and Kissinger’s habit of circumventing regular chains of command and cutting out those presumed to be skeptics of the White House’s methods. Burr and Kimball provide considerable evidence that these maneuvers were amateurish and would have been risky if the Kremlin had taken them more seriously. The Soviet Union noticed what the Nixon White House was trying to do and responded in a low-key way. The Kremlin liked its hand and was not persuaded to do Washington’s bidding. The coercive nuclear gambit ended with a whimper, after which Nixon and Kissinger ramped up bombing and mining campaigns. Despite being a nuclear superpower fighting a non-nuclear-weapon state, the United States was unable to restrain North Vietnam from seeking achievable and embarrassing gains.

U.S. leaders eventually figured out the limits of coercive nuclear diplomacy, but other states continue to ascribe enormous persuasive powers to weapons that have not been used in battle for seven decades. President Vladimir Putin reminds the world of Russia’s nuclear arsenal while engaging in military expeditions in Crimea, eastern Ukraine, and Syria. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un seems quite confident that he can keep adversaries at bay with nuclear threats. When breakdowns in deterrence do not lead to catastrophe in South Asia or when crises are successfully managed, national leaders in Pakistan give significant credit to their nuclear deterrent. Burr and Kimball have written a fine book that challenges these assumptions and tactics.

ENDNOTES

1.  For an argument that they do confer leverage, see Matthew Kroenig, “Nuclear Superiority and the Balance of Resolve: Explaining Nuclear Crisis Outcomes,” International Organization, Vol. 67, No. 1 (January 2013): 141­171. For the opposite argument, see Todd Secher and Matthew Fuhrmann, “Crisis Bargaining and Nuclear Blackmail,” International Organization, Vol. 67, No. 1 (January 2013): 173-195.

2.  Nina Tannenwald, The Nuclear Taboo: The United States and the Non-Use of Nuclear Weapons Since 1945 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008).

3.  H.R. Haldeman with Joseph DiMona, The Ends of Power (New York: Times Books, 1978), pp. 82-83.


Michael Krepon is the co-founder of the Stimson Center. He is the author or editor of 21 books, including Better Safe than Sorry: The Ironies of Living with the Bomb. This year, he received the Thérèse Delpech Memorial Award from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace for lifetime achievement in nongovernmental work to reduce nuclear dangers.

The U.S. Nuclear Weapons Spending Binge

President Barack Obama promised in the 2010 “[NPR] Report that his administration would reduce the number, role, and salience of nuclear weapons in U.S. defense strategy.

December 2015

By Daryl G. Kimball

President Barack Obama promised in the 2010 “Nuclear Posture Review [NPR] Report” that his administration would reduce the number, role, and salience of nuclear weapons in U.S. defense strategy. The “fundamental purpose” of the weapons, the review stated, is to deter nuclear attack, not wage a nuclear war. At the same time, the strategy called for maintaining and modernizing the remaining U.S. nuclear forces on a smaller triad of delivery systems.

The 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) established modestly lower limits for U.S. and Russian deployed strategic arsenals and a far-reaching verification regime. A 2013 Pentagon follow-on study determined that deterrence requirements can be met with one-third fewer deployed strategic nuclear forces.

But today, U.S. and Russian forces still far exceed deterrence requirements. Russia possesses some 1,780 nuclear warheads and the United States some 1,900 that can be delivered on several hundred strategic bombers and missiles. If used even in a “limited” way, the result would be a humanitarian catastrophe.              

The quest for further nuclear reductions has stalled and may be in reverse. Russia has rebuffed U.S. proposals for further nuclear cuts and violated the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. The danger of close encounters between NATO and Russian aircraft has increased tensions.

Worse yet, both countries are pursuing a multidecade nuclear weapons spending binge that promises to perpetuate excessive force levels and Cold War-era war-fighting capabilities for generations to come.

Current Pentagon plans call for 12 new nuclear-armed strategic submarines, 80 to 100 new penetrating strategic bombers, a fleet of new and stealthier nuclear-capable cruise missiles, and new land-based, intercontinental ballistic missiles that could reportedly be deployed on mobile launchers in the future, all at spending levels that exceed what was originally advertised.

In 2011 the Pentagon claimed that the cost for sustaining and modernizing nuclear delivery systems would be $126 billion and up to another $88 billion for warhead refurbishment and infrastructure modernization, for a total of about $214 billion. In 2015 the Congressional Budget Office estimated the cost from fiscal years 2015 to 2024 would be about $355 billion, including upgrades to nuclear command and control.

By the mid-2020s, the cost of nuclear weapons will consume 7 percent of the entire defense budget, according to Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work. Senior Pentagon leaders warn that there will not be enough money to fund all of the items on the military’s wish list. With one year left in his term, it is past time for Obama to chart a more realistic, affordable, and sustainable course.

For example, the president could announce that U.S. deterrence requirements do not require spending at least $62 billion on 642 new land-based missiles to support a deployed force of 400 missiles with a mobile option. Instead, he could direct the Pentagon to pursue the deployment of a smaller fleet of 300 new or refurbished fixed-silo ICBMs.  

The 2010 NPR Report stated that a decision would be made on “whether and (if so) how to replace the current air-launched cruise missile,” which is due to be retired in 2030. The Air Force wants 1,000 to 1,100 new air-launched, nuclear-capable cruise missiles at a cost of some $20 billion to $30 billion. Obama should order a second look and, as former Secretary of Defense William Perry recommended in a Washington Post op-ed last month, halt the program.  

As Perry says, “The old Cold War requirement for such a capability no longer exists.” The new system is for nuclear war-fighting, not deterrence, and other capabilities make the weapon redundant.

The Air Force is poised to spend $100 billion on its stealthy new strategic bombers to penetrate enemy air defenses with newly refurbished B61 nuclear gravity bombs. A new, long-range, precision conventional cruise missile is now being introduced for delivery by existing and new bombers and fighter jets.

Halting the new cruise missile program would open the way for a U.S.-led effort on a global ban on all nuclear-armed cruise missiles within a specified time frame, thus reducing current and future threats to the United States.

Obama also could announce that requirements for the sea-based leg of the triad can be met with a smaller fleet of strategic subs. Under the current plans, the 12 new boats would carry 192 missiles with up to eight warheads each, at a cost of $140 billion to develop. But with adjustments to the current launch-under-attack posture, that number of boats could be reduced to 8 to 10 and still meet current plans for 1,000 sea-based warheads.

Obama can still use the time he has left in office to reduce the role and number of nuclear weapons by trimming back and in some cases forgoing redundant and costly nuclear weapons systems. By doing so, he would open the way to further reducing the role and size of U.S. and Russian nuclear forces and to a safer and more secure future. 

Bomber Contract Highlights Unrealistic Nuclear Modernization Strategy, Say Experts

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Today Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter announced the U.S. Air Force’s decision to award the contract for the new, nuclear-armed, long-range penetrating strike bomber...

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For Immediate Release: October 27, 2015

Media Contacts: Daryl G. Kimball, executive director, 202-463-8270, ext. 107; Kingston Reif, director of disarmament and threat reduction policy, 202-463-8270, ext. 104

(Washington, D.C.)—Today Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter announced the U.S. Air Force’s decision to award the contract for the new, nuclear-armed, long-range penetrating strike bomber (or B3) program, which would cost in excess of $100 billion to design and build 80-100 of the planes.

The bomber buy is just one part of the Pentagon’s plan to spend at least $348 billion to maintain and rebuild the nuclear arsenal and refurbish the nuclear weapons complex over the next decade, according to a 2015 Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report.

“Given the B52H and B2A bombers are expected to remain in service through 2040 and 2060, respectively, there is no need to rush forward with the new strategic bomber, especially when it will compete with other high priority Air Force and Pentagon nuclear and conventional priorities,” said Kingston Reif, director of disarmament and threat reduction policy with the Arms Control Association.

Current plans to rebuild all three legs of the existing nuclear "triad" and their associated warheads, including 12 new ballistic missile submarines, up to 100 new long-range, nuclear-capable bombers, 642 new land-based ballistic missiles, and 1000 new, nuclear-capable long-range standoff cruise missiles.

"We believe the administration’s redundant, all-of-the-above approach to rebuilding all of the major U.S. nuclear weapons delivery systems at levels beyond realistic deterrence requirements is unsustainable and will deplete resources from higher national security priorities," said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association.

The Air Force wants a total 1,000 of the new nuclear-armed cruise missiles for use by all three bombers—the B52H, the B2A and the B3—at a development cost of some $20-30 billion.

"The Pentagon has failed to provide a compelling reason why it needs both a new penetrating bomber and a standoff missile to meet the nuclear deterrence requirements of the United States and our allies," said Reif of the Arms Control Association. 

“The requirement that the air-leg of the U.S. triad have two means to assure mass destruction against the most advanced air-defenses constitutes excessive redundancy. Other weapons, such as submarine-launched ballistic missiles, can penetrate air defenses with high confidence,” Reif added.

In an Oct. 15 op-ed in The Washington Post, William Perry, President Bill Clinton’s defense secretary, and Andrew Weber, President Barack Obama’s assistant secretary of defense for nuclear, chemical, and biological defense programs, called on President Obama to cancel the nuclear-capable air-launched cruise missiles program.

Perry and Weber described nuclear-armed cruise missiles as “a uniquely destabilizing type of nuclear weapon.” Foregoing the development of a new version “would not diminish the formidable U.S. nuclear deterrent in the least" and "could lay the foundation for a global ban on these dangerous weapons” they wrote.

“Proponents of the new nuclear air-launched cruise missile say that it provides the president with flexible options in the event of a crisis and the ability to ‘control escalation’ in a conflict with another nuclear-armed state. In other words, the missiles would come in handy for nuclear war-fighting,” Reif said.

 “The thinking behind the new cruise missile is inconsistent with the stated goal of President Obama to reduce the role and number and salience of nuclear weapons in U.S. military strategy,” Kimball charged.

“Future nuclear force planning needs to take into account the fact that the President's 2013 nuclear weapons employment guidance allows for a one-third reduction below New START levels, but even if the United States maintains New START warhead levels, it can do so at significantly lower cost," Kimball said.

"Despite warnings from senior officials that the current modernization plans are unaffordable, Secretary Carter and President Barack Obama have failed to make common-sense adjustments. They can and should trim back, and in some cases, forgo redundant and costly systems, such as a new nuclear-armed cruise missile, and save taxpayer dollars," Kimball added.

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The Arms Control Association is an independent, membership-based organization dedicated to providing authoritative information and practical policy solutions to address the threats posed by the world's most dangerous weapons.

U.S. Nuclear Weapons Funding in Limbo

Congress failed to pass any new appropriations bills for fiscal year 2016, raising questions about whether the United States can carry out the nuclear weapons activities planned for the year.

October 2015

By Kingston Reif

Defense Secretary Ash Carter delivers remarks at an Air Force Association conference in National Harbor, Md., on September 16. He warned of the impact on U.S. military forces if Congress passes a spending bill that does not allow military funding to rise above current levels. (Photo credit: Senior Master Sgt. Adrian Cadiz/U.S. Air Force)Congress failed to pass any fresh appropriations bills for fiscal year 2016, raising questions about whether the Defense and Energy departments can carry out the nuclear weapons sustainment and modernization activities they have planned for the year.

In the fiscal year 2016 budget request, the Obama administration requested a major funding hike above the previous fiscal year for programs to sustain and to rebuild nuclear-armed missiles, submarines, and bombers and their associated nuclear warheads and supporting infrastructure. (See ACT, March 2015.) If these programs are not funded at the requested levels, the result could be schedule delays and cost increases.

Pentagon leaders already are issuing warnings about the danger to U.S. security if Congress passes a year-long continuing resolution that would extend the previous year’s funding levels.

“[T]he longer a continuing resolution is, the worse it becomes, eventually resulting in a $38 billion deficit in resources for our military if Congress chooses to pursue this path for a full year,” Defense Secretary Ash Carter said on Sept. 16 at the Air Force Association’s annual conference in National Harbor, Md.

Overall, the administration requested $561 billion for national defense in fiscal year 2016, which includes the Defense Department’s regular budget activities and the Energy Department’s nuclear weapons programs. This spending proposal is roughly $38 billion above the cap in the 2011 Budget Control Act and $40 billion above the fiscal year 2015 enacted level.

The impact of a year-long continuing resolution on the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), a semiautonomous agency of the Energy Department, would depend on whether Congress makes an exception from the general no-increase constraints of a continuing resolution so that nuclear weapons funding can increase above the fiscal year 2015 level, a congressional staffer told Arms Control Today in a Sept. 16 e-mail.

The NNSA has been successful in seeking such an exception in the past, the staffer said.

As Arms Control Today went to press, Congress appeared poised to approve a short-term continuing resolution that would extend the previous year’s funding levels for a few months, buying time to negotiate new funding levels for fiscal year 2016 later this year.

In fiscal year 2015, Congress passed a continuing resolution for the first three and a half months of the year, followed by the passage last December of a $1.1 trillion conglomeration of 12 appropriations bills, known as an omnibus appropriations bill. The omnibus bill provided new funding for Defense and Energy department programs at roughly the level of the administration’s fiscal year 2015 request. (See ACT, January/February 2015.)

The passage of higher funding levels in fiscal year 2016 would likely require changing the spending caps set by Congress in the Budget Control Act. But Republicans and Democrats have yet to reach agreement on a total budget for discretionary domestic and military spending.

If Congress fails to pass new funding after a short-term continuing resolution, it could opt to pass a continuing resolution for all of fiscal year 2016.

Cruise Missile Delay Possible

A continuing resolution could have a significant impact on the administration’s plan to buy a fleet of new nuclear-capable cruise missiles. (See ACT, June 2015.)

The Obama administration’s fiscal year 2016 budget request proposed to markedly increase spending to accelerate by two years the development of the long-range standoff missile and the modified warhead that it would carry, partially reversing the fiscal year 2015 proposal to delay development of both by three years. (See ACT, March 2015.

Air-launched cruise missiles are carried by the B-52 long-range bomber and can attack targets at great distances. 

The NNSA is requesting $195 million to begin refurbishing the existing cruise missile warhead that would be delivered by the new missile. That is an increase of $186 million above the fiscal year 2015 appropriation of $9.4 million.

The Air Force is seeking $36.6 million in fiscal year 2016 for research and development for a long-range standoff weapon, more than 10 times as much as the $3.4 million that Congress appropriated for fiscal year 2015.

Impact Debated

In a Sept. 17 e-mail to Arms Control Today, NNSA spokeswoman Michelle Laver said that unless the NNSA receives a special waiver from Congress to begin funding the warhead refurbishment at the requested fiscal year 2016 level right at the beginning of the year, even a short-term continuing resolution would “delay development and engineering work” on the warhead refurbishment and “coordination activities with the Air Force” and would “result in a slip in the overall schedule including first production.” 

But the congressional staffer was skeptical of the NNSA’s warning, which the NNSA has conveyed to Congress. “I don’t think anyone believes” that a short-term continuing resolution and associated delay to the program “is problematic,” he said.

The Air Force had no specific comment on the impact of a continuing resolution on the development of the new cruise missile. “It is hard to say exactly which programs will be affected until we see the language” of the continuing resolution, Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek said in a Sept. 17 e-mail.

In their respective fiscal year 2016 defense appropriations bills, the Senate and House appropriations committees approved funding for the new missile at levels below the administration’s $36.6 million request. Senate appropriators provided $14.1 million while the House provided $27.5 million. According to the reports accompanying the Senate and House versions of the bills, the appropriators approved the smaller amounts because they believed that the Air Force requested more money than it could spend on the program in fiscal year 2016, not because of a lack of faith in the program.

Nuclear Costs to Jump, Pentagon Says

The Defense Department’s plan to modernize the U.S. nuclear arsenal will “roughly double” the percentage of the budget allocated to nuclear weapons, according to a senior department official. 

By Kingston Reif

The Defense Department’s plan to modernize the U.S. nuclear arsenal “is a very expensive proposition” and will “roughly double” the percentage of the budget allocated to nuclear weapons for a period of time during the 2020s and 2030s, according to a senior department official.

In testimony before the House Armed Services Committee on June 25, Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work said the cost to build and sustain new nuclear missiles, submarines, and bombers and to make needed improvements to nuclear command and control systems is projected to average $18 billion per year from 2021 to 2035 in constant fiscal year 2016 dollars.

When combined with the cost to sustain the current arsenal as the new systems are built, this will increase spending on nuclear weapons from the current level of approximately 3 percent of the overall defense budget to about 7 percent, Work said.

Work’s testimony marked the first time the Pentagon has provided cost information about nuclear forces beyond 10 years. He did not specify for how long nuclear weapons would consume 7 percent of military spending, but he said spending would peak “around 2026 and 2027.”

The projected increase “will require very hard choices and increased risk in some [non-nuclear] missions without additional funding above current defense budget levels,” Work added.

U.S. Strategic Command estimated in September 2014 that maintaining and modernizing the U.S. nuclear arsenal “will require close to 10 percent” of the Defense Department budget “for a period of time.” The command has since backed away from that number, stating that the cost is likely to be closer to 5 to 6 percent of the budget. (See ACT, April 2015.)

The Defense Department and the Energy Department’s semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration are required by law to submit a joint annual report to Congress that includes 10-year budget estimates for nuclear forces and their supporting infrastructure.

The most recent joint report, submitted to Congress in May 2014, projected $298 billion in spending between fiscal years 2015 and 2024 in then-year dollars, according to a July assessment by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the investigative arm of Congress.

In the past, the GAO and some members of Congress have criticized the joint report for undercounting the cost of certain nuclear modernization programs. (See ACT, July/August 2014.) The July GAO assessment found that the May 2014 joint report was much more comprehensive than previous iterations, but said “opportunities exist to further enhance transparency.”

Bloomberg, however, reported on Aug. 17 that, apparently unbeknownst to the GAO, last year’s joint report and the 2015 version, which has yet to be publicly released, misstated the 10-year cost estimate for the long-range strike bomber program. The Air Force is developing a new nuclear-capable bomber to complement and then replace the existing B-52H and B-2A aircraft.

Whereas the May 2014 joint report included a 10-year estimate of $33.1 billion in then-year dollars for the new bomber, the Air Force is now saying the correct number should have been $41.7 billion, according to Bloomberg.

The Air Force told Bloomberg that the estimated cost of the program between fiscal years 2016 and 2025 is also $41.7 billion, a reduction of nearly $17 billion from the $58.4 billion figure cited in the original version of the 2015 joint report submitted to Congress.

In an Aug. 24 press conference at the Pentagon, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said the misreporting of the bomber cost to Congress was a “regrettable error” and blamed a lack of “coordination” within the Air Force and the Office of the Secretary of Defense. James did not provide an explanation for why the two corrected estimates are now the same.

Earlier on Aug. 24, Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), the top Democrat on the House Armed Services oversight subcommittee, sent a letter to James, expressing concern about “recent reports indicating massive discrepancies” in 10-year cost estimates for the new bomber. She called on the Air Force to detail the steps it is taking “to ensure the accuracy” of future cost estimates for the program.

Amid questions about the credibility of the Defense Department’s budget estimates for nuclear weapons, an August report published by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments sought to provide a more detailed, long-term assessment of nuclear costs and put them in the context of overall national defense spending.

Written by Todd Harrison and Evan Braden Montgomery, senior fellows at the center, the report estimated that sustaining and modernizing nuclear weapons and their supporting infrastructure will cost $222-253 billion in then-year dollars over the 10-year period between fiscal years 2015 and 2024 and $836-963 billion over the 30-year period between 2014 and 2043.

Harrison and Montgomery concluded, “Although the costs of sustaining and modernizing U.S. nuclear forces are projected to grow in the years ahead…those costs will still account for a small fraction of total defense spending, even at their peak.”

The two analysts calculate that nuclear weapons will not exceed 5 percent of the total national defense budget over the next 25 years, even at the peaks of the anticipated nuclear spending bow wave in the mid-2020s. They dispute the notion that nuclear weapons impose a uniquely significant budget burden, saying, “What the United States can or cannot afford depends on the priorities set by policymakers.”

Harrison and Montgomery’s estimate is lower than the government’s projection due to different assumptions about how to count nuclear costs. For example, they attribute the bulk of the cost of acquiring and operating nuclear-capable bombers to conventional needs and only a fraction to the nuclear mission. The Pentagon includes the full cost of the bombers in its estimate of nuclear costs. 

CSBA Downplays Nuclear Effect on Budget, Potential Nuclear Savings

On August 4 the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) published a detailed estimate of the long-term costs of sustaining and modernizing U.S. nuclear weapons and their supporting infrastructure. The report, written by CSBA’s Todd Harrison and Evan Braden Montgomery, concludes that “Although the costs of sustaining and modernizing U.S. nuclear forces are projected to grow in the years ahead…those costs will still account for a small fraction of total defense spending, even at their peak.” Moreover, they write, “cutting nuclear weapons is unlikely to provide enough savings to...

New Nuclear Cruise Missile Won’t Control Escalation, Will Erode Stability

Arms Control Today recently reported on emerging details of the Air Force’s plan for the long-range standoff weapon (LRSO). The LRSO is a replacement for the Air Force’s current, 1980s-vintage air-launched cruise missile (ALCM). The Air Force plans to build 1,000-1,100 of the new cruise missiles at a projected acquisition cost of about $9 billion. After adding the $7-9.5 billion cost of life-extension for the associated warheads (according to estimates of the National Nuclear Security Administration), the total cost of replacing the existing ALCM could be close to $20 billion. Producing a...

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