Budget Blunder: “No Cuts” in Nuclear Forces

The new defense budget has
“no cuts” in nuclear forces.

By Hans M. Kristensen

“There are no cuts made in the nuclear force in this budget.” That clear statement was made yesterday by deputy defense secretary Ashton Carter during the Pentagon’s briefing on the defense budget request for Fiscal Year 2013.

We’ll have to see what’s hidden in the budget documents once they are released next month, but the statement is disappointing for anyone who had hopes that the administration’s promises about “concrete steps” to reduce the number and role of nuclear weapons and to “put an end to Cold War thinking” would actually be reflected in the new defense budget.

Not so for the FY13 budget. Other than a decision to delay work for two years on the next generation ballistic missile submarine, the Defense Budget Priorities and Choices report released yesterday does not list any nuclear reductions; neither previously announced nor new ones.

But one year after the New START treaty entered into effect and 18 months after the Nuclear Posture Review was completed, it would have made sense to include some nuclear cuts in this budget – especially because this budget includes programming for future budget years through 2017, only one year before the New START treaty has to be implemented. Specifically, the Pentagon should have explained how (and how soon) it will achieve the previously announced plans to:

  • Reduce the number of nuclear bombers to 60 deployed aircraft;
  • Reduce the number of ICBMs to no more than 420 deployed missiles;
  • Reduce the number of SLBMs to no more than 240 deployed missiles;
  • Retire the nuclear Tomahawk cruise missile.

Why wait? Demonstrating that the U.S. is not only talking about reducing its nuclear forces but also doing so through near term defense budget cuts would have been an important signal to other nuclear weapon states whose militaries are waiting to see what has changed in the U.S. nuclear posture. It would also have been an important signal to the countries in the international nuclear nonproliferation regime that will convene in May to prepare for the next review of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, countries whose support we need to strengthen the nonproliferation regime.

Instead, the administration might now have to spend a good part of the next year saying: “Trust us, we’re working on it.”

And it is working on it. The most important effort is the review currently underway within the administration of the requirements for targeting and alert levels of nuclear forces – requirements that determine the force level. The review may well decide additional reductions beyond New START.

In a hint to what might come, the new defense strategic guidance published in early January stated: “It is possible that our deterrence goals can be achieved with a smaller nuclear force, which would reduce the number of nuclear weapons in our inventory as well as their role in U.S. national security strategy.” (Emphasis in original.)

The Defense Budget Priorities and Choices document appears to reaffirm this by stating that the White House review “will address the potential for maintaining our deterrent with a different nuclear force.”

Once the deterrence review is completed, it is important that the White House explains to the world what it has decided and doesn’t leave it to leaks and vague comments by anonymous officials to determine what the international perception of the direction of the U.S. nuclear posture will be.

This publication was made possible by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York and Ploughshares Fund. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.

8 thoughts on “Budget Blunder: “No Cuts” in Nuclear Forces

  1. It is disappointing news, especially when considering the fiscal crisis we are undergoing with our troubled Economy. It further reveals that we are still trapped in Cold War strategies that have little to do with today’s realities. A shift in funds from the nuclear budget to the conventional forces would not make us any more vulnerable, in fact, it would make us stronger. With many of the recent studies out, a force of 300 icbms, 8 deployed submarines, and 16 B-2s would provide ample deterrent and would probably also help us to negotiate further reductions with Russia in the area of tactical or non-strategic warheads. Hopefully the comment of “further nuclear reductions” will still happen in the near future.

  2. Hans Kristensen

    OK, let’s catch our breath. This publication was the Administration’s position for the fy2013 (priorities) defense budget during an election year.

    I’m stunned the Obama Administration had the guts to call for base reductions (BRAC), force reductions and health care (TRICARE) adjustments. Honestly, gutsy election year call.

    Personally, I’ll be further stunned if some Congressman (woman) doesn’t kill the “divesting of 38 C-27J“ tactical transport aircraft if jobs are lost in their particular Congressional district. (much less a single ICBM)

    What exactly did we expect in the nuclear arena? (while we are negotiating with the Russians on New Start II?)

    How about those B-52Gs at Minot?

    Frank Shuler

  3. What some do not see or understand is that the USA also plays a nuclear deterrent role for many nations in the free world who do NOT have nuclear weapons; therefore it is the right decision to maintain the present deterrent and NOT follow the proposed cuts. The alternative is for smaller nations to arm themselves with nuclear weapons if the USA sharply cuts its arsenal. The world is still a dangerous place and becoming more dangerous I think.

  4. As long as US Treasury has no trouble auctioning debts, there will be no serious cut in the federal budget or the nuke budget, which is small change in DOD’s budget. United States has been running Military Keynesianism successfully for over 70 years. Who is going to stop using a winning formular? It makes no difference if the nukes are paper tigers, as long as money can be borrowed and spent. Plus, there are many benefits of owning nukes, for example in the business called threat of war. As for the downsides, we will just kick the can down the road like Mr. Keynes.

  5. I don’t think we need to field fewer than 1,550 warheads. I think we should have fewer delivery vehicles. A force of 300 icbms with 300 W87 warheads, 192 slbms with 1,200 W88 warheads, 16 B-2s with 300 B83 warheads, and 500 B61s for fighter aircraft would provide a safe, reliable, and robust deterrent. The money to revitalize our nuclear industry should be spent on retiring the other warhead types and to build more W88s. It is my belief that strategic deterrence is most important and that we should first begin to move to zero with tactical or non-strategic warheads as these are not much more effective than conventional weapons and they do not make sense using on battlefields where allied forces and civilians would be targeted as well.

    Reply: The first part of your comment is probably similar to the posture we’re moving toward, except for the bit about the W88s. They are great for digging up silos and underground bunkers but much too powerful for most other scenarios. There are only about 400 W88s and although a few tens have been built recently that is only to replace others destroyed in surveillance tests. They’re not going to build more W88s but are now studying a new “common warhead” option to replace W88s on SLBMs and W78s on ICBMs in the future. That will most likely have a lower yield than the W88. For the next 30 years, most of the warheads on the SLBMs will be the 100-kiloton W76-1.

    On the nonstrategic nuclear weapons, I agree, and in fact that is the direction the stockpile has moved in for the past two decades; fewer and fewer nonstrategic warheads. I think they would have all been gone by now had it not been for the 200 that are stuck in Europe with no military mission because NATO can’t figure out how to move on. HK

  6. Hans Kristensen

    Any thoughts regarding the recent Robert Burns (AP’s National Security writer) article titled “US weighing steep nuclear arms cuts”?

    Per Mr. Burns, the Pentagon is formulating a detailed proposal to President Obama on deep, perhaps very, very deep, nuclear arms cuts.

    Frank Shuler

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