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Right after I graduated, I interned with the Arms Control Association. It was terrific.

– George Stephanopolous
Host of ABC's This Week
January 1, 2005
U.S. Nuclear Weapons

U.S. Nuclear Weapons Funding in Limbo

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.

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.

Nuclear Costs to Jump, Pentagon Says

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. 

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. 

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...

Air Force Drafts Plan for Follow-On ICBM

July/August 2015

Updated: July 8, 2015

By Kingston Reif

U.S. Air Force airmen install a cable raceway on an intercontinental ballistic missile at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California on February 3, 2014. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Jonathan Snyder/RELEASED)An initial Air Force proposal for replacing the Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) system calls for procuring 642 missiles, 400 of which would be operationally deployed, multiple sources told Arms Control Today in recent months. The remaining missiles would be used for flight tests and as spares to support the program’s anticipated 50-year lifespan, the sources said.

If the U.S. government moves ahead with the proposal, it will have a capability extending into the 2070s to deploy 400 ICBMs, the number that the United States will have in 2018 under the terms of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START).

To meet the treaty limits, the Defense Department has said it will reduce the U.S. arsenal from its current level—447 deployed missiles as of September 2014—while retaining 50 nondeployed missile launchers.

During interviews in May and June, the sources said the preliminary acquisition cost estimate for the Minuteman III replacement system—an option studied under the Pentagon’s Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) program—is $62.3 billion, which covers a 30-year period between fiscal year 2015 and fiscal year 2044.

In a subsequent e-mail exchange, Air Force representatives confirmed the estimated cost and the number of planned missiles to be purchased and deployed.

The $62.3 billion cost estimate was first reported on June 5 by Nuclear Security and Deterrence Monitor. The newsletter quoted Ed Gulick, an Air Force spokesman, as saying the draft estimate was completed in February by the Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center’s ICBM System Program Office and that it includes $48.5 billion for the missiles, $6.9 billion for command and control systems, and $6.9 billion to renovate the launch control centers and launch facilities.

In a June 15 e-mail to Arms Control Today, Gulick said that the cost estimate is in “then-year dollars,” meaning it includes inflationary increases expected to occur in the program over the 30-year time horizon of the estimate.

Options Studied

Last summer, the Air Force conducted an analysis of alternatives to sustain the ICBM force beyond the anticipated end of the Minuteman III’s service life in 2030.

Gulick said the analysis initially examined five options, but after discussions with senior officials in the defense secretary’s office, the analysis narrowed its focus to three alternatives: a “baseline” option that would extend the life of the Minuteman III through 2075, a “replacement system capitalizing” on the existing Minuteman III silo infrastructure, and a “hybrid” option that would “mix” the existing Minuteman III silo infrastructure with new road-mobile ICBMs.

A request for information issued by the Air Force on Jan. 23 seeking information and feedback from defense industry companies said the United States “is preparing to acquire a replacement for” the Minuteman III system “that replaces the entire flight system” and “retains the silo basing modes.”

Maj. Melissa Milner, one of the Air Force representatives, said in a June 19 e-mail that the current program cost estimate of $62.3 billion is “focused on a replacement system that reflects a missile similar in size to the Minuteman III.” The Air Force has not provided a public cost estimate for the other options.

Milner did not indicate whether the GBSD missile would have a completely new design or would incorporate significant design features from the Minuteman III.

Deployment of the replacement missile system is scheduled to begin in 2027. 

In remarks at a June 16 event in Washington, Lt. Gen. James Kowalski, the deputy commander of U.S. Strategic Command, said the United States cannot “continue to sustain” the Minuteman III.

Questions Raised

One former government official said the cost estimate for the replacement system suggested a new ICBM, an approach that he questioned.

It’s “hard to believe” the Pentagon would choose to design and build a new missile because there is no military need to do so, retired Col. Mark Cancian, who recently left the U.S. Office of Management and Budget after seven years as director of its force structure and management division, said in June 15 interview.

Cancian, now a senior adviser in the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, added that there is “no way the Air Force can afford” a new fleet of ICBMs given the cost of plans to modernize other elements of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, such as building new ballistic missile submarines and long-range bombers.

A 2014 report by the RAND Corp. on the future of the ICBM force found that “any new ICBM alternative will very likely cost almost two times—and perhaps even three times—more than incremental modernization of the current Minuteman III system.”

The GBSD program is slated to face a key acquisition milestone early next year, when the defense secretary’s office will decide whether the program should proceed to the next stage of the acquisition process. This stage includes maturing the technology, refining requirements, and finalizing cost estimates for the program.

In the lead-up to this decision point, known as a milestone A decision, the Defense Department is reviewing the acquisition strategy for the program.

Cancian said that although the Air Force may be evaluating a new missile, this approach is not yet a formal Air Force plan or recommendation. “A lot could change” when the program “comes up for decision and has to compete with other programs,” he said.

ICBMs make up the land-based leg of the U.S. nuclear triad of delivery systems, which also consists of submarine-launched missiles and long-range bombers. Long-range bombers can carry air-launched cruise missiles and gravity bombs.

In a speech in Berlin on June 19, 2013, President Barack Obama said he would seek to reduce the numbers of U.S. and Russian deployed strategic nuclear weapons by up to one-third. (Photo by Mathias Krohn/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

The deployed Minuteman III missiles are dispersed in underground silos at three U.S. bases: Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota, Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana, and F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming. Each missile is deployed with one nuclear warhead.

The Minuteman III, which has a range of more than 8,000 miles, was first fielded in 1970 with a planned service life of 10 years. Production of the missile ended in 1977. A total of 794 missiles were acquired at a cost of $41.4 billion, as measured in fiscal year 2012 dollars, according to the RAND report.

Several multibillion-dollar life extension programs have kept the Minuteman III in service for more than 40 years. Nearly the entire missile has been refurbished, including the propellant and guidance and propulsion systems.

President Barack Obama determined in 2013 that the United States could reduce “deployed strategic nuclear weapons by up to one-third,” but he conditioned further reductions on negotiations with Russia.

Greg Weaver, principal director for nuclear and missile defense policy in the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, told Inside the Air Force on Feb. 20 that given the uncertain prospects for a future arms control agreement with Russia after New START expires in 2021, the GBSD program “is budgeted based on the current policy” and “arms control limits.”

Weaver added that the approach could change if Russia and the United States agreed to further nuclear weapons reductions at some point in the future.

An initial Air Force proposal for replacing the Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile calls for procuring 
642 missiles.

Mr. President, 'Yes, We Can'

July/August 2015

By Daryl G. Kimball

Barack Obama came into office with a deep understanding of the dangers of nuclear weapons and a strong commitment and a plan to address them. On the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the nuclear age, it is time for him to rejuvenate U.S. leadership on nonproliferation and disarmament.

President Obama’s stirring April 2009 Prague address on steps toward a world without nuclear weapons kicked off a busy and successful phase. He promptly negotiated and won Senate approval of the modest but important New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) with Russia. U.S. diplomats helped win consensus on a detailed action plan to strengthen the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in 2010. Obama initiated a series of nuclear security summits to accelerate global efforts to lock down nuclear materials. He launched a new and fruitful policy of pressure and engagement with Iran to secure verifiable constraints on that country’s sensitive nuclear activities.

But aside from progress in the Iran nuclear talks since 2013, the president’s efforts have lost focus and momentum, only in part because the Republicans have seized the majority in the Senate and tensions with Russia have worsened.

In his Prague speech, Obama pledged an “immediate and aggressive” effort to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, but has not followed through, despite having a strong technical and military case for the 1996 pact.

Since 2011, the U.S.-Russian nuclear disarmament dialogue has atrophied. Obama announced in 2013 that the U.S. arsenal could be cut by one-third more and still meet deterrence “requirements.” He proposed renewed talks with Russia to slash both countries’ arsenals further. Unfortunately, Russian President Vladimir Putin has rejected that proposal and has failed to offer a substantive alternative.

At the same time, Obama and Putin are pursuing plans for massive nuclear force modernization to preserve their excessive strategic capabilities for decades to come. Although senior Pentagon leaders warn that key elements of the $350 million, 10-year U.S. plan are “unaffordable,” Obama’s team has failed to pursue more-practical, cost-saving options.

Meanwhile, South Asian rivals India and Pakistan continue to amass more fissile material and deploy new nuclear delivery systems, China has begun to put multiple warheads on its arsenal of 75 long-range missiles, and North Korea has tested nuclear weapons and amassed more bomb material as Pyongyang and Washington haggle over the conditions for resuming talks.

Such developments led former Defense Secretary William Perry to warn last month, “We are about to begin a new round in the nuclear arms race unless some brake is put on it right now.”

Worse still, Russian officials are reverting to dangerous Cold War rhetoric and veiled nuclear threats. Washington must not reciprocate. U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said June 21 on his way to a NATO meeting, “We all understand the gravity of nuclear dangers. We continue to deter, to have a strong deterrent and prepare to respond.”

Respond? With several hundred nuclear weapons available for striking targets within minutes of a launch order, there is no response that would not risk the total annihilation of both countries and the United States’ NATO partners. Obama’s team must lower, not increase, nuclear tensions even as it counters Russian meddling in Ukraine, beginning with the resumption of military-to-military contacts with Russia. At the same time, Obama must actively pursue new proposals to halt nuclear buildups elsewhere around the globe.         

First, Obama should invite Putin into an arrangement under which the two leaders would jointly accelerate the pace of reductions under New START and cut their respective strategic arsenals to 1,000 deployed warheads and 500 delivery vehicles. In addition, Obama could offer to resume formal talks on missile defense capabilities and deployments to assuage Russian concerns, real and imagined. 

Second, Obama must rein in the Pentagon’s Strangelove-ian nuclear force modernization scheme. To start, he should halt plans for 1,000 to 1,100 new, air-launched cruise missiles, which would cost some $20-30 billion and are designed for nuclear war-fighting, not deterrence. The White House should also put the brakes on Air Force plans to spend $62 billion on a new fleet of land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Third, Obama should help initiate a new global nuclear restraint and disarmament dialogue. He should call for other nuclear-armed states to freeze the overall size of their stockpiles as the United States and Russia reduce theirs. He should signal support for high-level summits on multilateral nuclear disarmament involving nuclear-armed and non-nuclear-weapon states. Such a process could begin in Hiroshima, where Japan will host the 2016 Group of Seven summit.

In his final months, Obama must also try to reinforce the nuclear test ban by seeking support from the UN Security Council for a resolution that determines that nuclear testing by any state is a threat to international peace and security.

He cannot do it alone. But with more energy and creativity and the backing of congressional allies, international partners, and the many constituencies that support the “Prague vision,” Obama can still achieve important breakthroughs to reduce nuclear dangers.

On the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the nuclear age, it is time for [President Obama] to rejuvenate U.S. leadership on nonproliferation and disarmament.

Air Force Clarifies Cruise Missile Plan

June 2015

By Kingston Reif

Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) speaks during a May 6 hearing of the Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee in this video image. Feinstein questioned the need for the new cruise missile that the Air Force is pursuing. (Senate Appropriations Committee)Only a portion of the 1,000 new nuclear-capable air-launched cruise missiles (ALCMs) that the Air Force is proposing to build will be deployed with nuclear warheads, according to an Air Force official.

Arms Control Today reported last month that the Air Force is seeking about 1,000 new nuclear-capable ALCMs, roughly double the size of the existing fleet of ALCMs. (See ACT, May 2015.)

In a May 7 e-mail in response to the story, an Air Force official said the number of new ALCMs “to be acquired includes a large number of spare and test missiles that will be required throughout the life of the program.” The Air Force has declined to provide additional details on the planned numbers of deployed, spare, and test missiles.

“This means that the planned purchase of 1,000 missiles includes far more missiles than we plan to operationally arm and deploy in our nuclear force,” the official added.

The official said that the requirements issued by President Barack Obama for deployed ALCMs “have not increased.”

The existing ALCM can be carried by the B-52 bomber. The missile, which has a range of more than 1,500 miles, was first fielded in 1982 with a planned service life of 10 years. Multiple life extension programs have kept the missile in service for more than 30 years. The Air Force is planning to retain the missile until 2030.

The Air Force is developing the long-range standoff cruise missile to replace the existing ALCM. The new missile will be compatible with the B-2 and B-52 bombers, as well as the planned long-range strike bomber.

The Obama administration’s fiscal year 2016 budget request proposed to 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.)

The United States does not maintain any nuclear weapons loaded on its deployed heavy bombers on a day-to-day basis. Nuclear weapons for bombers are stored separately in bunkers on or near their air bases.

The Air Force currently retains 575 nuclear-capable ALCMs, down from the original production run of 1,715 missiles, which concluded in 1986. The service declined to comment on whether the existing ALCM was built with a similar ratio of deployed weapons to spare and test missiles as that proposed for the new 1,000-missile plan.

Some members of Congress continued to express skepticism about the need for any new nuclear cruise missiles.

At a Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee hearing on May 6, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) questioned whether the United States requires a new “cruise missile that can deliver nuclear warheads from great distances in addition to the numerous gravity bombs, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and intercontinental ballistic missiles we’ve armed ourselves with.”

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter told Feinstein at the hearing that the reason for a new cruise missile “is to replace the cruise missiles that exist now…in recognition of the fact that air defenses are improving around the world and that keeping that capability to penetrate air defenses with our nuclear deterrent is an important one.”

In a May 14 interview published on the website of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Rose Gottemoeller, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, defended the need for a new cruise missile on the grounds that “air-launched systems are inherently more stabilizing” because bombers are “slow flying” and “if a decision is made to launch the bomber force, then they can also be recalled.”

Gottemoeller added that the plan to build 1,000 new missiles “is not in my view unreasonable.”

Meanwhile, the House-passed version of the fiscal year 2016 National Defense Authorization Act includes a provision that would require the defense secretary to submit to Congress a report on the justification for the planned number of new cruise missiles, including the rationale for building the expected number of missiles and how the number of planned missiles aligns with Obama’s nuclear weapons employment guidance.

The report was proposed by Rep. Michael Quigley (D-Ill.) as an amendment to the defense bill. The amendment, which was cosponsored by Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-Oregon) and Jared Polis (D-Colo.), was approved by the full House on a voice vote.

In a May 15 press release, Quigley said his action was prompted by “new information that the Air Force is planning to procure 1,000 [long-range standoff missiles]” and would “promote a more modest and responsible nuclear weapons budget.”

A number of organizations, including the Arms Control Association, have supported efforts this year to reduce funding for the new cruise missile and associated warhead refurbishment programs.

The Air Force says that only a portion of the 1,000 new nuclear-capable air-launched cruise missiles it is proposing to build will be deployed with nuclear warheads.

Air Force Wants 1,000 New Cruise Missiles

UPDATED: May 7, 2015

By Kingston Reif

The U.S. Air Force is planning to build about 1,000 new nuclear-capable air-launched cruise missiles (ALCMs), several sources said last month.

The projected purchase wAn AGM-86B cruise missile is displayed at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton, Ohio, in this undated photo. (U.S. Air Force)ould roughly double the size of the existing U.S. fleet of ALCMs. 

A knowledgeable source said in an April 7 e-mail that the plans called for 1,000-1,100 new missiles at a cost of roughly $9 billion. In a subsequent e-mail exchange, Maj. Kelley Jeter, an Air Force spokeswoman, confirmed the number of planned missiles, but declined to comment on the cost. 

“The draft acquisition strategy currently plans to procure approximately 1,000 missiles,” Jeter said. That number “provides enough weapons to meet the operational requirement” for U.S. Strategic Command, as well as spares and test missiles, she added. Jeter did not specify how many weapons the Air Force is planning to assign to each of these categories. 

Acquisition planning and development activities for the new missile are well under way, Jeter said. 

The Air Force is aiming to receive approval later this year from the Office of the Secretary of Defense to go to the next stage of the acquisition process, which includes maturing the technology, refining requirements, and finalizing cost estimates for the new missile. The first new missile is slated for completion in 2026. 

The Air Force does not currently plan to develop a conventional variant of the new missile, Jeter said. “There is currently no validated requirement” for a new conventional ALCM, “nor is there funding for such a variant,” she said.

President Barack Obama determined in 2013 that the United States has more deployed strategic nuclear weapons than it needs for its security. It is not clear how the addition of 1,000 new missiles would comport with that determination.

It is also unclear whether the Air Force can afford a new cruise missile given the budget constraints imposed by the 2011 Budget Control Act and the costs of rebuilding other elements of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Public remarks by top Pentagon officials have repeatedly acknowledged the limits that the act imposes on their plans.

Frank Kendall, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology, and logistics, said on April 14 that beginning in 2021, the Defense Department will have to secure an additional $10-12 billion annually above current funding levels for nuclear forces in order to afford the current nuclear weapons modernization plan. The department has “a huge affordability problem” with regard to nuclear modernization, Kendall said. 

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

In a June 2014 letter to the leadership of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Kendall stated that long-range bombers armed with nuclear ALCMs “assure our allies and provide a unique and important dimension of U.S. nuclear deterrence in the face of increasingly sophisticated adversary air defenses.” 

Frank Kendall, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology, and logistics, shown above in a September 2014 photo, has said the Pentagon has “a huge affordability problem” with regard to nuclear modernization. (CSIS)A bomber force armed with the new missiles also would give the United States “uniquely flexible options in an extreme crisis, particularly the ability to signal intent and control escalation,” Kendall added.

But some current and former government officials have questioned the need for any new cruise missile. (See ACT, November 2014.)

The Air Force’s lone remaining ALCM variant is the AGM-86B, up to 20 of which can be carried by a B-52 bomber. The missile, which has a range of more than 1,500 miles, was first fielded in 1982 with a planned service life of 10 years. Multiple life extension programs have kept the missile in service for more than 30 years. The Air Force is planning to retain the missile until 2030. 

The B-2 bomber is not equipped to carry ALCMs, but has the capability to deliver 16 nuclear gravity bombs at any given time.

According to Jeter, the Air Force currently retains 575 ALCMs. Those missiles, which would be retired, carry the W80-1 warhead, which is maintained by the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), a semiautonomous arm of the Energy Department. In an April 17 e-mail, Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, estimated that there are approximately 550 W80-1 operational warheads left in the military stockpile. 

The Air Force is developing the long-range standoff cruise missile to replace the AGM-86B. The new missile will be compatible with the B-2 and B-52 bombers, as well as the planned long-range strike bomber. 

Kristensen said the current plan to build another 1,000-1,100 missiles would “make sense” if one assumed the Air Force wanted enough missiles for a force in the 2030s of 16 operational B-2 bombers and 44 new long-range strike bombers, each carrying a maximum of 16 missiles, plus about 200 missiles for use as spares and test missiles. 

The United States is planning to maintain up to 60 nuclear-capable long-range bombers under the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). But the treaty does not cap the number of weapons that can be carried on each bomber. Each bomber counts as only one warhead against the treaty cap of 1,550 deployed warheads even if capable of carrying more than one cruise missile or gravity bomb. 

As the Pentagon proceeds with its plans to build the new long-range cruise missile, the NNSA is to carry out a life extension program for the ALCM warhead. Production of the first of these modified warheads, known as the W80-4, is scheduled to be completed in 2025. 

In an April 21 e-mail, Energy Department spokesman Derrick J. Robinson said the NNSA has not yet decided how many of the modified warheads it would produce and that the number would be classified. According to Kristensen, the NNSA would have to bring previously retired ALCM warheads out of storage to provide the number of warheads needed to accommodate the draft 1,000-missile plan. 

The Obama administration’s fiscal year 2016 budget request proposed to 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.

If the knowledgeable source’s estimate of $9 billion for the missile is accurate, the total cost of replacing the existing ALCM and the associated warhead could be close to $20 billion. The NNSA has estimated that the cost of the life extension program will be between $7 billion and $9.5 billion. 

The Air Force’s draft acquisition plan for the long-range missile “makes a mockery” of New START “by blatantly taking advantage” of the treaty “loophole” that attributes only one weapon to each bomber, said Kristensen. The Air Force plan “sends the wrong message” about U.S. intentions “and should be rejected,” he said.


UPDATE: Air Force Official Responds

In response to this story, an Air Force official e-mailed the following statement on May 7:

The AF LRSO program is designed to replace current nuclear-armed air-launched cruise missiles (ALCM).  Replacement of our current ALCM is necessary to ensure that the U.S. nuclear deterrent remains safe, secure, and effective, in accordance with the President's guidance.

The number of LRSO missiles to be acquired includes a large number of spare and test missiles that will be required throughout the life of the program.  This means that the planned purchase of 1,000 missiles includes far more missiles than we plan to operationally arm and deploy in our nuclear force.  There is no plan to operationally arm and deploy 1,000 LRSO missiles - the requirements for these systems in our guidance have not increased and we intend to deploy only a fraction of those we purchase.

Nuclear-armed cruise missiles, including the LRSO, are accountable under New START's bomber counting rule.  The New START bomber counting rule is well understood and was fully debated during the Treaty's ratification.  In counting one warhead per bomber, the New START Treaty advances the legacy of bomber stability and flexibility initiated under the original START Treaty. The LRSO program is fully consistent with the approach to reductions and strategic stability negotiated by Washington and Moscow.

The U.S. Air Force is planning to build about 1,000 new nuclear-armed air-launched cruise missiles, several sources said last month.

STRATCOM Shifts on Nuclear Costs

April 2015

By Kingston Reif

U.S. Strategic Command appears to be backing away from a September 2014 estimate 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.”

Adm. Cecil Haney, who has led STRATCOM since November 2013, made the estimate in a letter to Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), the chairman of the House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee. But at a Feb. 26 subcommittee hearing, Haney said the figure was likely to be in the range of “5 percent to 6 percent.”

In this video image, Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Wash.) speaks at a February 26 hearing of the House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee. At the hearing, Larsen asked about a budget estimate made last year by U.S. Strategic Command. (House Armed Services)Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Wash.) first disclosed the existence of the letter at the hearing. Arms Control Today subsequently obtained a copy of the letter, which has not been publicly released.

In the letter, Haney says the Defense Department currently spends 2.5 percent of its budget on nuclear forces but that current plans to rebuild U.S. nuclear-armed missiles, submarines, and bombers and the associated nuclear warheads and supporting infrastructure for these weapons will cause this ratio to quadruple in the future. Haney defended the large anticipated surge in funding, writing that “the cost of losing a credible deterrent capability would likely be much greater not only in dollars, but potentially in terms of freedom and sovereignty.”

The letter does not detail how STRATCOM calculated total nuclear weapons costs or specify the period of time and anticipated size of the Pentagon budget during which nuclear weapons spending could peak at 10 percent of military spending.

At the hearing, Larsen asked Haney how STRATCOM is thinking about the spending trade-offs that would be required to accommodate increased spending on nuclear weapons programs within the Defense Department, noting that 10 percent of the budget “over any period of time is a lot.”

In response, Haney appeared to back away from the 10 percent estimate, stating that “as I look at some of the Congressional Budget Office [CBO] work that is ongoing, more specifically, as it looks over a period…in the 2020[s] to 2030s, when we would have to recapitalize the bulk of our strategic forces,” the cost of nuclear weapons is “really [on] the order of 5 percent to 6 percent” of the Defense Department’s budget.

A January 2015 CBO report estimated that current plans to sustain and modernize the U.S. nuclear arsenal will cost $348 billion between fiscal years 2015 and 2024, or 5 to 6 percent of the total cost of the Obama administration’s plans for national defense over that period. (See ACT, March 2015.)

In an e-mail exchange with Arms Control Today, STRATCOM declined to outline the assumptions behind the estimates contained in the September letter or clarify whether Haney has disavowed the 10 percent estimate. In a March 17 e-mail, STRATCOM spokesman Lt. Col. Martin O’Donnell said, “I would refer you back to the Admiral’s testimony” and quoted from the exchange with Larsen.

Meanwhile, high-ranking Defense Department officials continue to warn that the United States may not be able to afford the growing cost to sustain and modernize U.S. nuclear forces, especially in light of the spending limits set by Congress in the 2011 Budget Control Act. The Obama administration proposed a major funding hike in the fiscal year 2016 budget request for nuclear weapons programs.

At a March 4 hearing of the Senate Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee, Frank Kendall, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology, and logistics, said that as the Pentagon starts to actually build new submarines, missiles, and bombers in the early 2020s, it is going to “start to have a problem finding ways to afford these systems.”

“We will work to do that,” Kendall added. “It’s a very high priority, and we will work to do that,” but it will be “a challenge for us,” he said.

U.S. Strategic Command appears to be backing away from a September 2014 estimate that maintaining and modernizing the U.S. nuclear arsenal “will require close to 10 percent” of the Defense Department budget.

Nuclear Weapons Could Require 10% of Defense Budget

Nuclear weapons are expensive. That much has been known for some time. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) released reports in December 2013 and January 2015 showing that current plans to maintain and eventually rebuild all three legs of the U.S. nuclear triad and its associated warheads will cost American taxpayers roughly $35 billion per year over the next decade, or five to six percent of the plans for national defense spending. Over the next 30 years, the bill could add up to $1 trillion, according to recent report of the National Defense Panel Review of the 2014 Quadrennial Defense...

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