Nuclear Security & Deterrence Vol. 19 No. 30
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Nuclear Security & Deterrence Monitor
Article 3 of 18
July 31, 2015

DoD Nuke Modernization May Need Half-Trillion Above BCA Over 8 Years

By Abby Harvey

Brian Bradley
NS&D Monitor

The Pentagon’s base funding account could require $500 billion above Budget Control Act (BCA)-permitted funding levels over eight years to comprehensively modernize U.S. nuclear forces and support other key missions, according to a recently released RAND study on national security. “Choices for America in a Turbulent World” outlines an average annual increase of approximately $50 billion above the BCA line from fiscal 2016 to 2023. The BCA limits base Pentagon funding to $499 billion for fiscal 2016.

That spending scenario would finance full-scale triad modernization and would simultaneously support a 70,000-person counterterrorism/special operations force, preserve a “two war” posture, “selectively” update counter-anti-access/area-denial capabilities, and boost the military to full readiness by 2017, RAND determined. The situation would result in the U.S. spending approximately 2.5 percent of national GDP on defense in fiscal 2024, according to the report. The U.S. currently spends about 3.8 percent of its GDP on defense. “To put it plainly, America’s credibility and influence internationally, the safety and security of its nuclear arsenal, and the viability of its all-volunteer force could all erode if [base] defense spending is held to [$614 billion or lower],” the report states. The extent of nuclear modernization that could be supported by a yearly base Pentagon funding level of less than $615 billion is unclear, the report indicates.

The federal government by about 2030 plans to field an updated intercontinental ballistic missile fleet to replace what will soon be 400 Minuteman 3 ICBMs, is working to replace 14 Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines with 12 new boats by 2042, is conducting B61 modernization, has requested funding for the long-range standoff (LRSO) weapon, and plans to roll out 80-100 Long Range Strike Bombers (LRS-Bs) by the mid-2020s.

The report predicts that Pentagon officials will work hard to support the Ohio Replacement Program despite high up-front costs, emphatically stating “no one in the defense establishment” will want to abandon the roughly $100 billion effort, mainly because the sea-based deterrent is widely regarded as the most survivable leg of the triad in a nuclear conflict. Furthermore, RAND said the air-launched cruise missile replacement—the long-range standoff weapon, currently budgeted to cost $1.8 billion during the life of the Future Years Defense Program—will contribute to spiking nuclear modernization costs.

On the other hand, the report notes, separate components of nuclear modernization will be much less expensive. Replacing the ICBM fleet with the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent, for example, is estimated to cost $62.3 billion from fiscal 2015-2044 for development, procurement, and military construction, far less than the Ohio-class replacement, particularly if the Air Force maintains existing silos, according to the report. RAND also estimated that costs for carving a nuclear capability into a portion of LRS-Bs will be “quite modest” for the aircraft designed primarily to project conventional power. 

U.S. Strategic Force Posture

RAND, which receives most of its funding from the U.S. government, also described in the study how the current posture of U.S. nuclear capabilities is geared to counter potential threats. The report states that bombers and fighters fitted with concomitant gravity bomb and air-launched cruise missile capabilities are the most valuable U.S. nuclear assets for countering threats posed by potential nuclear-armed regional adversaries (NARAs), such as North Korea and Iran, partly because the aircraft don’t have to fly through Russia en route to their targets. However, the study claims the U.S. isn’t prepared for a mutually vulnerable situation with those NARAs, and asserts that U.S. forces should be able to defend against small-scale nuclear attacks and to use counterforce against NARA strike capabilities. “In the event that these states (or others) acquire nuclear weapons, as North Korea already has, U.S. nuclear forces would be called on to deter and, if deterrence fails, to prevent or substantially reduce the effects of their use of nuclear weapons against U.S. forces, allies, or partners,” the report states.

The U.S. attempts to complicate the decision calculus of larger states like Russia and China through its fielding of tactical nukes—such as fighter-B61 combos—in Eastern Europe, and the report cites the smaller weapons’ agility as a key asset, as nonstrategic weapons suggest the possibility of unwanted escalation in an intensifying conflict, according to RAND. “Because bombers and fighter aircraft can deliver nuclear weapons of varying yields and do so flexibly, without having to overfly Russian territory en route to their targets, these aircraft are the most useful elements of the U.S. nuclear forces for addressing threats posed by NARAs,” the report states. RAND also noted that U.S. leaders will probably want rough quantitative nuclear parity with Russia, even under treaty constraints.

“[The] ‘triad’ of nuclear delivery means has provided the basis for a highly survivable force that, supported by multiple types of surveillance sensors, dedicated command and control and communications assets, and high levels of training and readiness among their operating units, has ensured that no adversary could meaningfully limit damage to his nation by conducting a first strike,” the study states. “Going forward, it may be prudent to retain the triad in some form. It also seems certain that U.S. leaders will want the overall size of the U.S. strategic force to be roughly comparable to that of the Russian Federation, whether the two nations’ forces are constrained by mutual agreement or not.”

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