07/14/2011 04:12 pm ET Updated Sep 13, 2011

Good Times for the Nuclear Weapons Budget

As Congress debates the FY 2012 Defense Authorization Bill, the talk around Washington has been about what will get cut and by how much. However, as the rest of Washington is bracing for cuts, the funding spigot for nuclear weapons and delivery systems is about to get thrown wide open. What does this say about our security priorities?

As Joe Cirincione pointed out at The Atlantic, over the next ten years, the nuclear budget is expected to skyrocket, with $213 billion planned for overhauling the nuclear weapons stockpile and production complex while putting a down payment on new submarines, bombers, and missiles. In addition to this budget hike, the U.S. will spend roughly $20 billion a year just to operate the current nuclear force and $10 billion a year on missile defense programs that have yet to prove their worth. This stands out against what former Secretary Gates called the "inevitable flattening and eventual decrease of the defense budget." The defense budget is going to shrink. To adapt, the U.S. needs to make some hard choices about what defense programs are necessary to keep America and its allies secure in the 21st century. No such hard choices are on deck for the nuclear arsenal. The United States is ramping up programs to remodel and perpetuate the current nuclear force through 2080. The costs have already kicked in. FY 2012 budgets are slated to include:
  • $1.1 billion for the Ohio-class SSBN replacement program: The Navy is setting out to field 12 new ballistic missile submarines between now and 2040. The total program cost could top $101 billion, as estimated by the Congressional Budget Office.
  • $197 million for the next generation strategic bomber: The Air Force wants to replace its aging fleet of B52 bombers with a new long-range bomber, potentially including a nuclear mission. The total program cost has been estimated at $55 billion.
  • $279 million for the B61 Life Extension Program: The National Nuclear Security Administration is looking to extend the service life of and add capabilities to the B61 bomb -- soon to be the only "tactical" nuclear weapon left in the active stockpile. Total program could cost an estimated $5 billion.
These are just highlights of "the Obama nuclear buildup," as Loren Thompson at Forbes labeled it. On the current trajectory, the total nuclear weapons budget is likely to soar past the half-trillion dollar mark over the next decade. So long as nuclear weapons exist, the U.S. will need a reliable deterrent to provide security for itself and its allies. But this strategic goal can and must be met on a tighter budget. As Secretary Panetta said in his confirmation testimony, "the days of large growth and unlimited defense budgets are over. Our challenge will be to design budgets that eliminate wasteful and duplicative spending while protecting those core elements that we absolutely need for our Nation's defense." With an arsenal built for Cold War excesses, there is plenty of room for cutting spending on excessive capabilities. This would allow defense planners to narrow the focus on nuclear modernization programs "we absolutely need." Otherwise, budget cutters might have to force the issue. Policymakers can make these decisions by asking the tough questions:
  • What number of nuclear weapons does it take to deter nuclear attacks on the United States and its allies? For over two decades, that number has been falling steadily. How low can we go?
  • Does our deterrent absolutely necessitate the deployment of a nuclear triad of subs, bombers, and ICBMs? If not, can we retire a delivery platform and pocket the savings from not building a new generation of it?
  • For the weapons we keep, what modernization programs will be necessary to ensure the performance of existing warheads without explosive testing? If smaller in scope, can we right-size the nuclear weapons complex to fit our means to those ends?
These questions are not easy. But answering them could provide the perspective needed for Washington to make the cuts and put the country on a better strategic and fiscal footing.

This post originally appear on The Will and the Wallet, the blog of the Budgeting for Foreign Affairs and Defense program at the Stimson Center.