By Charles Knight, Senior fellow, Project on Defense Alternatives
President Obama will soon sign a new strategic nuclear directive which reduces the number of enemy target points. This in turn will justify a reduction of about 500 warheads from the deployed strategic forces, as reported by R. Jeffrey Smith of the Center for Public Integrity and David Sanger of the New York Times.
The New START treaty limits deployed warheads to 1,550 by the year 2018. Having decided that U.S. national security does not require 1,550 deployed weapons and that closer to 1,000 will be adequate, it appears that the Obama administration will seek agreement with Russia for both countries to simultaneously reduce their deployed arsenals to the lower number. Likely this will not involve a treaty, but rather rely on an informal understanding, verified by national intelligence means.
A motivating factor for both the U.S. and Russia is the cost of maintaining large arsenals of nuclear weapons. Cutting its deployed strategic forces by one-third would save the U.S. tens of billions of dollars over the next ten years.
While the Reasonable Defense proposal from the Project on Defense Alternatives (PDA) makes the case that smaller strategic forces actually make the U.S. more secure and calls for a larger reduction in deployed weapons, the 500-weapon reduction implied in the new directive is a significant step in the right direction.
Lawrence Korb of the Center for American Progress says that:
The United States currently spends about $55 billion a year to maintain its triad of nuclear-capable bombers, land-based ballistic missiles, and submarine-launched ballistic missiles. Moreover, if the United States wants to refurbish, repair, and modernize its existing nuclear arsenal in its current size, we will have to spend about $600 billion over the next decade.
How much will be saved by a 1/3rd reduction in strategic nuclear forces will depend on the structure of the residual nuclear forces. There are some components of strategic forces that cost much more than others, and the overall complexity of the strategic force incurs added costs. So far there is no proposal from the administration in regards to structural reform.
Among the most costly procurement items in the next two decades are the 12 strategic missile submarines that the Navy plans to buy to replace the 14 aging ones in the present fleet. The Congressional Research Service reports that this program will cost at least $90.4 billion. Because of its tremendous cost, the Navy has been very reluctant to include these submarines in its regular ship building budget. No doubt the Navy would be relieved to build fewer than original planned, effectively making room in its budget for many other ships it wants to have.
Smith reports that the Navy could “cut at least two of the 12 new strategic submarines it now plans to build.” PDA in its Reasonable Defense report recommends the Navy trim five missile subs from its plans.
As the deployed force gets smaller it makes sense to reduce the complexity of the force structure. There is nothing magic about the triad created at the height of the Cold War. PDA has argued for moving to a dyad made up of submarines and land-based ICBMs. Ending the strategic nuclear role of bombers would reduce the requirement for (and the cost of) the new bomber currently in development and also allow the remaining bomber fleet to more effectively focus on a conventional role. Others, such as the group Global Zero, have recommended retiring the ICBM leg of the triad.
Either way, reducing strategic nuclear weapons and the complexity of their force structure is a strategically safe and practical way to reduce the cost of America’s national defense.