THE BLOG
11/15/2014 11:53 am ET Updated Jan 15, 2015

Don't Throw Billions at an Obsolete Nuclear Arsenal

Chip Somodevilla via Getty Images

This week Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announced the results of two reviews of current practices for maintaining the nation's nuclear arsenal. A hard look at the troubled nuclear enterprise was certainly needed in the light of the scandals it has experienced in the past several years, from widespread cheating on competency exams to mishandling of weapons. But unfortunately the review panel's recommendations miss the forest for the trees.

Perhaps no element of the Pentagon's narrative about what's ailing its nuclear force is more emblematic of the department's misdiagnosis of the problem than the tale of the lonely wrench. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel reported that the nation's three Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) sites had been sharing a single wrench kit needed for specialized maintenance, Fedexing it back and forth as needed. The implication seemed to be that the nuclear enterprise was so starved for funds and attention that it couldn't even keep basic tools in stock.

But other lessons can and should be drawn from this incident. Obviously, if having more than one wrench kit was truly essential to our national security, the Pentagon could easily have afforded it out of its multi-billion dollar budget for strategic forces, without a new infusion of funds. This was clearly an issue of mismanagement, not lack of funding.

But another lesson may be drawn as well. ABC News learned that the wrench kit has barely been used in recent years:

The wrench in question is officially known as a Heat Shield Counter-bore Tool and was originally used for the now-defunct Peacekeeper missile. But it was needed again when the Minuteman III's weapon system was upgraded, but it has seldom been used. The toolkit has been used less than five times since 2008.

So, if the Pentagon needs a few more wrenches, by all means buy them. But don't try to use this story as part of a plea for billions in additional funding.

There are no doubt issues related to training, morale and equipment that should be addressed as part of sustaining the nuclear arsenal. But the real question is what that arsenal is for. In a comment on this issue for a piece done by Mark Thompson for Time magazine, Kingston Reif of the Arms Control Association gave an excellent summary of what purpose our current arsenal serves and why it is much larger than it needs to be:

Apart from deterring a nuclear attack, nuclear weapons play an increasingly limited role in U.S. national security policy, but our arsenal is still configured for a Cold War world that no longer exists. There are simply no plausible military missions for these weapons given their destructive power, the current security environment and the prowess of U.S. conventional forces.

Put another way, we should use the attention that the two recent reviews have brought to the Pentagon's nuclear enterprise to think about restructuring the force to bring it into line with our actual security needs. Separate studies by analysts at the Air War College and the Naval War College have suggested that a few hundred deliverable warheads are sufficient to deter any nation from attacking the United States or its allies with nuclear weapons. And even the Pentagon has acknowledged that we could cut deployed warheads by one-third from the levels established in the New START treaty and still fulfill its vision of the nuclear mission.

The best policy at a time of constrained resources is to hold off on building a new generation of nuclear delivery vehicles while we take a closer look at what is really needed. A report by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies has estimated that modernizing and sustaining the nuclear triad of bombers and land- and sea-based ballistic missiles will cost roughly $1 trillion between now and the mid-2030s. Just one new ballistic missile submarine is estimated to cost $5.5 billion, even before the inevitable cost overruns. Depending how they are configured and deployed, a new generation of Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles could cost anywhere from $20 billion to $120 billion. And the Air Force wants 100 new nuclear capable bombers at $550 million a pop. All of these projects are at an early enough stage in their development that a much needed course correction would be relatively easy to accomplish, given the will and the wisdom to do so.

Even a modest restructuring of the force could save tens of billions of dollars. In a recent report entitled "The Unaffordable Arsenal," the Arms Control Association proposes changes in nuclear modernization plans that would save $70 billion over the next decade. The proposals include delaying the development of a new bomber and a new ICBM; canceling the planned Air-Launched Cruise Missile; and reducing the buy of new ballistic missile submarines to eight from 12 while maintaining the capability to launch the same number of warheads. Further reductions in the size of U.S. nuclear forces would drive these savings numbers even higher.

So before we spend billions on various short-term fixes to the Pentagon's existing nuclear enterprise, let's rethink the hundreds of billions the department wants to spend on nuclear weapons we don't need at prices we can't afford. Meanwhile, you'll be glad to know that Chuck Hagel has announced that the Pentagon will spring for some more wrenches.

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William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy