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Report: Upgrading U.S. Nuclear Forces Could be Affordable Under Sequestration

Ohio-class guided missile submarine USS Michigan (SSGN-727) heads out to sea in 2012, US Navy Photo

Ohio-class guided missile submarine USS Michigan (SSGN-727) heads out to sea in 2012, US Navy Photo

CORRECTION: Due to an editing error, a previous headline on this post misrepresented the content of the CSBA report issued on Tuesday. The report stated recapitalization of the U.S. nuclear force could be affordable under funding restrictions of the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA) if made a priority.

The Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments acknowledges in a new report that modernizing U.S. nuclear forces — with programs such as the Ohio-class replacement ballistic missile submarine — will compete for funds conventional weapons upgrades like the F-35 Lighting II Joint Strike Fighter (JSF).

Speaking Tuesday at the Washington, D.C., think-tank, Todd Harrison, one of the report’s authors, said, “We won’t be able to do all at the same time.” He added in the mid 2020s “The Joint Strike Fighter [all three variants] will be in full-rate production at the same time” and the Army, which now has no major modernization programs in the pipeline, likely will be looking at replacements for its fighting vehicles and tanks.

“We always have budget constraints” and it becomes a matter of setting priorities, he said.

Harrison said that spending on the nuclear forces would rise from 3 percent to 5 percent of the defense budget as the “bow wave” crests but then would fall back to current levels when adjusted for inflation. That translates to $40 billion in the peak years.

Studies from inside and outside the Defense Department vary widely on how much it will cost to modernize the nuclear forces. Eric Edelman of the center said the estimates range from $600 billion to $1 trillion to upgrade the land-based, sea-based, airborne triad of nuclear deterrence. “That is not affordable under BCA [Budget Control Act] and sequestration.”

Harrison asked rhetorically, “What can you save?”—then added, “We didn’t look at eliminating the sea-based part of the triad.”

The report offered three options for savings in the ballistic-missile submarine program by going down to a fleet of ten, Harrison said. Current Navy plans call for 12 replacements for the 14 Ohio-class submarines in the fleet.

One option would retire the four oldest SSBNs early. “Reducing the overall size of the fleet would also allow the Navy to delay the Ohio Replacement Program by three years and cut the final two SSBNs from its production run.” The report estimates savings of $8 billion from Fiscal Year 2015–2019 and $29 billion in the 2020s.

A second option would not retire any Ohio-class subs early but delay the replacement program three years and cut the last two from production. That option would also save $8 billion from FY 2015–2019 and $29 billion in the 2020s. But “it would also increase costs by $9 billion in the 2030s by shifting peak funding years.”

The last option would be to maintain the current buying and retirement plans but cut the last two boats from the end of the production run. There would be no savings from FY 2015 to the end of the 2020s. “The estimated savings in the 2030s would be roughly $17 billion,” the report said.

Overall, the report noted there are few immediate savings by cutting nuclear forces and the longer-term savings would occur after the Budget Control Act expired.

“Cutting nuclear weapons is unlikely to provide enough savings to manage near-term resource constraints, unless the United States were to make wholesale changes in nuclear strategy and force structure—changes that are not only unlikely, but could not easily be undone,” the report concluded.

  • Curtis Conway

    “We didn’t look at eliminating the sea-based part of the triad.”

    Tthe arguments have been made. The conclusion was, and HiStory has shown that the TRIAD is sacrosanct. A cord of three strands cannot be broken. Adhere to the ancient wisdom, or your acting like our Liberal brethren. We will have to cut somewhere else, unless the Budget Control Act is rescinded, and greater percentage of GDP is invested in our (and the planet’s) security.

    The Nuclear TRIAD has kept us safe, and the general peace, for how long? You seriously want to mess with that, and change an equation that you don’t even know about or have an appreciation for all the elements of, or (like this administration) even understand the functional elements of?

    • redgriffin

      I don’t think they are planning to do that I believe that the DOD is looking into how they can preserve all parts of the triad at the least cost with the best bang, pardon the pun, for the buck.

    • J_kies

      Curtis – One big problem with your argument: DOD never planned on a Triad, they meant to have a Dyad. Schlesinger was pretty clear on the reasons that the Department researched all three legs was an expectation that either the land based or sea based missiles would fail to provide a viable system. We are now hostage to more success than planned and trying to re-buy and maintain all the systems is painful for systems we plan to never use in anger.

      The modern multi-polar deterrence world is different than the bi-polar Soviets v the good guys situation of the Triad. ICBMs are only useful for deterring Russia as China and others know that Russian overfight risks existential retaliation. Due to geographic flexibility; bombers and ‘boomers are better for multipolar deterrence missions.

      • Curtis Conway

        The ‘Proof of the Pudding’ is over 50 years of success! If you really want to mess things up, take the tools away from our negotiators at the table, and those in the command center. This administration has no idea what they are doing which is why all this discussion is happening in the first place, because they don’t believe in the system in the first place, and want to get rid of it, HiStory be damned. We are broke and have mortgaged against our posterity for several generations so now WE CAN ONLY NOT BE SAFE?

        The election can’t come fast enough not just for me, but for the country.

        • J_kies

          So you’re really anxious for Hillary? Seriously, ineptitude isn’t (D) or (R) based, it comes from politicians ignoring the career professionals to increase PAC donations. The current dwarfs campaigning to be the next person at 1600 Pennsylvania are abysmally advised based on the inane things they say.

          • Curtis Conway

            We should get rid of the whole lot of them, particularly if they came on the job in the last seven years. Hillary is the worst manifestation of the infestation of the Ruling Class I have seen in a long time. How can the most of someones tax exempt giving go into ones own foundation that 85% of supports them. I gotta start one of these.

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  • KellyJ

    Sounds like someone at the 5 sided funny farm is thinking of putting a gun to Ohio Replacement’s head and saying ‘repeal sequestration or the boomer gets it.’

  • wahoojed

    We can deploy an affordable nuclear triad, but not the way they are currently intending. First, we should build a Minuteman IV with one boosted W87 warhead each. Refurbish each silo and launch control centers. Upgrade command and control and radars and satellites. Second, we should cancel the LRS-B and build standoff bombers using the 747-8I with hypersonic long range stealth LRSO/W80-4 cruise missiles. Third, we should install the Payload Module on every Virginia class submarine and make each of the 4 new tubes hold an IRBM with 4 W76-1 warheads each. We should build 50-60 Virginia class subs and cancel the Ohio replacement submarine. Finally, we should forward deploy 500 B61-12 gravity bombs to be carried on F-35As. This would still provide a very robust nuclear deterrent at a much lower cost.