By Kingston Reif and Shannon Bugos*
As the Biden administration prepares to initiate a review of U.S. nuclear weapons policy, its first budget request proposes to continue every part of the unnecessary and unsustainable nuclear weapons spending plans it inherited from the Trump administration. This includes the controversial additions made by President Trump to the Obama-era program, such as additional, more usable lower-yield nuclear capabilities.
The budget submission is a disappointing and unfortunate missed opportunity to put the plans on a more stable and cost-effective footing. The request is also inconsistent with President Biden’s stated desire to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. policy and seek new risk reduction and arms control arrangements with Russia and perhaps China.
During the campaign, President Biden rightly said the United States “does not need new nuclear weapons” and that his “administration will work to maintain a strong, credible deterrent while reducing our reliance and excessive expenditure on nuclear weapons.”
Current U.S. nuclear weapons policies exceed what is necessary for a credible nuclear deterrent, and the financial and opportunity costs of the current modernization plan are rising fast amid a flat defense fiscal year (FY) 2022 budget request and the potential for no growth beyond inflation budgets over the next several years.
According to the most recent Congressional Budget Office assessment of the cost of nuclear forces published in late May, the United States as of the end of the Trump administration is planning to spend $634 billion over the next decade to sustain and modernize the arsenal. This is an increase of $140 billion, or 28%, from the previous 10-year projection just two years ago.
The Biden administration maintains that its budget request ensures that the nuclear modernization effort is “sustainable.” But the warning signs indicating that the plans cannot be achieved on budget or on schedule are everywhere. And they are increasingly flashing bright red. It is not at all clear that the Biden administration fully appreciates the magnitude of the challenge it is facing.
Whether the budget proposal turns out to be a placeholder pending the outcome of the administration’s Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) that may lead to adjustments of the current program of record, or a harbinger that Biden intends to stick with the Trump administration’s more expansive nuclear plans remains to be seen.
Regardless, sticking with the Trump plans for another year could make it harder to adjust course later. The Biden administration could – and should – have paused some of the most controversial modernization efforts pending the outcome of its NPR.
In keeping with President Biden’s views, the administration’s forthcoming NPR should pursue a nuclear posture that is more stabilizing, supports the pursuit of additional nuclear risk reduction and arms control measures, and frees up taxpayer dollars for higher priority national and health security needs.
The Fiscal Year 2022 Budget Request
The Obama administration committed to an overhaul of nearly the entire nuclear arsenal in 2010 as part of its effort to win Republican support in the Senate for the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). At the time, the effort was estimated to cost approximately $200 billion over the ensuing ten years.
What the Obama administration kickstarted, the Trump administration continued and expanded in the name of countering Russian and Chinese nuclear advancements and more aggressive behavior. Spending on nuclear weapons grew significantly over the past four years, due in part to cost overruns in programs that began under the Obama administration and new nuclear capabilities proposed by the Trump administration.
Now, the Biden administration is requesting $43.2 billion in fiscal year 2022 for the Defense and Energy Departments to sustain and modernize U.S. nuclear delivery systems and warheads and their supporting infrastructure. That includes $27.7 billion for the Pentagon and $15.5 billion for the Energy Department’s semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA).
The proposed spending on nuclear weapons constitutes about 5.7% of the total national defense request of $753 billion.
A straight “apples to apples” comparison of the Biden submission to what Trump requested and Congress largely supported in fiscal year 2021 – $44.5 billion – and what Trump projected to request for FY 2022 – $45.9 billion – is difficult because the Biden proposal appears to reclassify how spending on nuclear command, control, and communications programs is counted, leading to a lower requested amount.
Based on the CBO’s estimates, continuing with the Trump administration’s plans would consume as much as 9% of the Biden administration’s plans for total national defense spending over the next decade. In the latter years of the decade, spending on nuclear weapons could exceed 10% of the military budget.
The budget request would notably continue the Trump proposals to expand U.S. nuclear capabilities. The additions and their requested funding amounts include:
- $15 million for early development of a new low-yield nuclear sea-launched cruise missile;
- nearly $134 million for continued early development of a new high yield submarine launched ballistic missile warhead (the W93) and associated aeroshell;
- $98.5 million to sustain the B83-1, the only remaining megaton class warhead in the arsenal, including to begin alterations to extend its service life; and
- nearly $1.9 billion to build the capability to produce at least 80 plutonium pits – or cores – for nuclear warheads per year at two sites.
The requests for the W93, B83-1, and pit production are all very similar to the Trump administration’s projected funding levels in fiscal year 2022. It is not clear what the Trump administration would have proposed for the new sea-launched cruise missile.
As with most new administrations, the Biden administration only had time for a quick review of the fiscal year 2022 budget plans bequeathed by its predecessor. However, the Pentagon did review some nuclear weapons systems, notably the Trump plans for a new low-yield submarine-launched ballistic missile warhead variant, known as the W76-2, and a new nuclear-armed sea-launched cruise missile.
The Navy began fielding the W76-2 in late 2019. The new cruise missile is undergoing an analysis of alternatives to determine possible options for the weapon. The CBO estimates the cost of the missile at $10 billion over the next decade.
The future of the new cruise missile appears to be a low priority for the Navy and rightly so given it is a redundant and costly hedge on a hedge. Despite the inclusion of funding for the weapon in the budget request, preliminary budget guidance issued by acting Navy Secretary Thomas Harker on June 4 called on the service not to fund the weapon in fiscal year 2023.
Triad Budget Request Grows Beyond Projections
In addition to continuing with the Trump add-ons, the budget request would also sustain – and then some – plans that began during the Obama administration to replace long-range delivery systems for all three legs of the nuclear triad.
In fact, three legacy programs – the long-range standoff missile (LRSO) to buy a new fleet of air-launched cruise missiles, the Columbia class to buy a new fleet of ballistic missile submarines, and the ground based strategic deterrent (GBSD) to buy a new fleet of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) – are slated to receive a combined nearly 15% increase above what the Trump administration was planning to request.
The LRSO would receive $250 million more in FY 2022 than the Trump administration was planning to seek. The Air Force has not explained the rationale for this large increase. The service accelerated the program last year following the decision to proceed with a single contractor for the weapon. (The Air Force awarded the development contract to Raytheon on July 1.)
The only major delivery system program that would receive a decrease below what was projected by Trump is the program to further life extend the Trident II D5 submarine-launched ballistic missile in the wake of a Congressional cut to the program in FY 2021.
The Columbia-class, GBSD, and B-21 long-range bomber programs are each poised cost between $100-$150 billion after including the effects of inflation and likely cost overruns, easily putting them among the top 10 most expensive Pentagon acquisition programs.
NNSA Budget Is Flat But Remains High
While most of the debate about how to approach nuclear modernization focuses on the Pentagon and the delivery systems, the exploding price tag of the NNSA’s modernization plans continues to fly under the radar. Spending on NNSA weapons activities grew by nearly 70% during the Trump administration.
The administration’s request of about $15.5 billion for nuclear weapons activities at the NNSA is an increase of about $139 million above the fiscal year 2021 level, but a decrease of $460 million below the Trump projection of $15.9 billion for fiscal year 2022.
In addition to funding the new warhead and facility projects proposed by the Trump administration, the request also keeps on track the Trump plans for the B61-12 gravity bomb, W87-1 ICBM warhead, and W80-4 air-launched cruise missile warhead upgrade programs. In order to prioritize warhead life extension programs and pit production recapitalization, the agency is proposing to reduce funding for stockpile research, technology, and engineering activities as well as efforts to replace aging infrastructure.
The topline NNSA weapons request is the first decrease from a prior year request since fiscal year 2013 and from a prior year projection since fiscal year 2016 – though from a much bigger baseline. Last year, Congress provided approximately $15.4 billion, a mammoth increase of $2.9 billion above the FY 2020 appropriation. A mere two years ago, the FY 2020 budget request projected a FY 2022 request of $13 billion for weapons activities. Or $2.5 billion less than the actual FY 2022 request.
The reality is that the scope of the NNSA nuclear weapons modernization effort has been overloaded to such a degree that it cannot be executed in the absence of sustained significant growth above inflation over the next several years. And even then, such increases might not be enough to meet the aggressive schedule goals for many of the agency’s nuclear warhead and infrastructure replacement efforts.
For example, the budget request revealed that the estimated cost of a facility at the Savannah River Site intended to produce 50 plutonium pits per year pursuant to the current 80 pit annual goal has risen from up to $4.6 billion – a figure which the Trump administration’s plutonium strategy was based on – to up to $11.1 billion, which is a 141% increase. The agency has also said that completion of the project will be delayed by up to five years. To make matters worse, the design for the facility is only 30% complete.
In sum, the Biden administration has ignored these budget realities in its latest budget request for NNSA weapons activities. It acceded to the Trump baseline, but at a lower level than planned and without changing the scope of the modernization effort. Given the rampaging cost of the agency’s plans, the administration won’t be able to punt again in FY 2023 and beyond. It will need to either produce significant additional budget increases for weapons activities or reduce the ambition of the modernization plans.
Mounting Execution Challenges and Opportunity Costs
While supporters of the status quo on nuclear modernization continue to argue that the effort is affordable and achievable, the facts tell a different story. In the past year alone:
- The projected 25-year cost of the NNSA’s nuclear warhead and infrastructure sustainment and modernization plans rose from $392 billion to $505 billion. On top of that, as noted above, the projected cost to build the pit production facility at Savannah River rose from up to up $4.6 billion to up to $11.1 billion, and the start date has been delayed by two to five years.
- The projected GBSD program acquisition cost rose from $85 billion to $95.8 billion.
- The FY 2022 budget request for the Columbia and LRSO programs is a combined $1 billion more than Trump planned as of last year.
- The Government Accountability Office concluded that “every nuclear triad replacement program…and every ongoing bomb and warhead modernization program—faces the prospect of delays.”
The CBO report published in May showed that the projected cost of the Trump administration’s nuclear weapons spending plans grew by a whopping $62 billion (or 29%) during the six common years (FY 2021-FY 2026) covered by their estimate as of the end of the Obama administration. And there appears to be no end in sight to the growth.
The rising cost of the nuclear weapons mission continues to force hard choices for the Pentagon as to what other priorities must be cut back. For example, Rear Adm. John Gumbleton, the Navy’s budget director, told reporters on May 28 that the service’s decision to only buy one instead of two new destroyers “was absolutely an affordability question, where the goal of the department was to balance the first priority, which was investment in Columbia recapitalization.” For the second year in a row, members of Congress have strongly criticized the Navy’s shipbuilding budget proposal as inadequate.
In addition, the Pentagon is once again proposing to slash funding for the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, which supports global efforts to detect and secure dangerous pathogens such as the coronavirus. The budget request for the program is clearly inconsistent with one of President Bidens’s top priorities, combatting the pandemic, as well as his call for augmenting nuclear material and global health security.
Recommendations for the Nuclear Posture Review
The Biden administration must keep these execution challenges and growing opportunity costs in mind as it conducts its NPR this year. Russia and China are modernizing their nuclear arsenals, developing new weapon capabilities, and, according to U.S. intelligence estimates, projected to increase the size of their nuclear warhead stockpiles over the next decade.
But planned spending on nuclear weapons poses a major threat to security priorities more relevant to countering Moscow and Beijing and assuring allies, such as pandemic defense and response as well as pacing China’s advancing conventional military capabilities.
It is imperative that the White House provide clear direction to the Pentagon to produce real options for decision by President Biden consistent with his goal of reducing the role of and spending on nuclear weapons and seeking new arms control arrangements. These options must include the posture and budget implications of more cost-effective alternatives to the current program of record, which would be in keeping with the administration’s desire to adopt a more integrated approach to deterring adversaries.
Examples of such options include reducing the size of the deployed strategic nuclear arsenal below the New START limits, deferring and/or adjusting the scope and pace of the GBSD program, and scaling back plans at the NNSA to build newly-designed ICBM and SLBM warheads and produce at least 80 plutonium pits per year by 2030.
Reshaping the spending plans consistent with such adjustments could save at least $80 billion through 2030 while still allowing the United States to maintain a nuclear triad. Such an amount would, for example, be more than enough to fulfill Indo-Pacific Command’s request earlier this year for $22.7 billion to augment the U.S. conventional defense posture in the region through fiscal year 2027 via the Pacific Deterrence Initiative.
Moreover, the longer it takes to begin the NPR, which has yet to formally start, the greater the danger that the administration could miss the window to include any potential changes to the current modernization plans in the FY 2023 budget request. Biden administration officials have stated that certain decisions about force structure and modernization will be accelerated during the review process to inform the next budget submission, as past NPR’s have typically taken about a year to complete. But the window will only be open for so long.
The Biden administration missed an opportunity in its first budget request to begin building back a better nuclear strategy. It can’t afford to waste another opportunity to do so. Continuing along the current course is a recipe for a major budget collision that would weaken American security. [IDN-InDepthNews – 17 July 2021]
* Kingston Reif is Arms Control Association’s Director for Disarmament and Threat Reduction, and Shannon Bugos, Research Associate. This text first appeared in the Arms Control Association’s Volume 13, Issue 4 on July 9, 2021.