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Costs Of Nuclear Force Programs Could Be Cut Greatly: Study

By | September 25, 2006

      Costs of procuring, operating and maintaining the missiles-centered U.S. nuclear force structure could be reduced modestly or greatly under multiple outlay-reduction possibilities, according to a new study by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA), a Washington think tank focusing on defense issues.

      The salient point here is that if cost savings in missiles on land and submarines, plus in nuclear weapons carried on long-range bombers, are to be realized years hence, then precursor actions must be initiated now, or soon, according to the study by Steven M. Kosiak, CSBA director of budget studies.

      Cost savings might be as simple as counting the price of obtaining multi-role bombers capable of carrying both nuclear and conventional weapons as charged mostly to conventional-warfare funding, rather than to nuclear force spending.

      On the other hand, the cost savings might have a tangible effect, with one cost savings plan calling for a reduction to 11 SSBN nuclear missile submarines, while another proposal would call for just 10 of them, as opposed to the 14 now in the Navy fleet.

      The study analyzes five possible paths for the U.S. nuclear deterrence programs and their potential cost savings:

      One proposal, calling for no change, would provide no savings. That would involve a total cost for the U.S. nuclear weapons and delivery programs across the services totaling some $30.7 billion per year, on average, over the next three decades.

      Under this plan, the United States is assumed to maintain roughly the same number of weapons systems currently envisioned for the nuclear force, such as intercontinental ballistic missiles, nuclear-missile-firing submarines, and bombers.

      As far as nuclear weapons themselves, this no-cost-cuts option would have the United States “maintain an arsenal of 2,200 operationally deployed strategic nuclear warheads (the high end of the 1,700-2,200 warhead range projected by the administration for 2012),” the report explained. “In addition, it would maintain a stockpile of 2,400 other active nuclear warheads, including 200 spares and a responsive reserve of 2,200 warheads. Thus, consistent with current projections for 2012, the United States would retain–after tapping its responsive reserve–the ability to deliver as many as 4,400 strategic nuclear warheads.”

      A second scenario would provide the same number of ICBMs and nuclear-tipped missiles in submarines, and leave their modernization plans intact, as would the first option. The only point of difference between the two plans is that it would involve a “smaller and less capable nuclear-capable bomber” force, the study explains.

      “Specifically, under this option, the Air Force would forego the production and fielding of a new, near-term bomber (or, alternatively, the new aircraft would be acquired, but it would be a dedicated conventional bomber like the B-1B).

      “In addition, the new bomber fielded in the 2035 timeframe would be less capable (and less costly) than the advanced bomber included in Option 1.” This option would carry a $22.7 billion per year cost attributable to the nuclear force programs. One possible move to lessen the cost-cutting impact on aircraft programs would be to fund new-generation bombers from conventional airpower accounts.

      The third possibility would “substantially” cut the U.S. nuclear force structure, and thus realize more savings than the earlier alternatives, costing an average of $18.2 billion over the coming decades.

      This scenario would see the United States able to “sustain an operationally deployed force of 1,700 strategic nuclear weapons between 2012 and 2035–compared to 2,200 nuclear weapons,” the ceiling set by the administration in Options 1 and 2. U.S. forces also would command about 1,250 other active strategic nuclear weapons, about 1,100 of which would constitute a responsive reserve, and some 150 of which would be spares.

      For strategic force hardware, this would leave 300 ICBMs, 11 SSBNs and 40 nuclear-capable long-range bombers.

      The fourth option would entail cutting U.S. “nuclear offensive strategic forces deeply,” the report explained, in terms of platforms and delivery vehicles such as missiles, submarines and bombers, and in terms of nuclear warheads. But it would cost just $13.5 billion yearly over the three decades.

      This would result in deploying about 1,000 strategic nuclear weapons plus another 50 as spares, for a total stockpile of some 1,050 active strategic nuclear weapons. Unlike the earlier, higher-cost options, no other warheads would be maintained as a responsive reserve. Individual platforms and delivery vehicles procured in this option generally would be smaller and capable of carrying fewer nuclear warheads than even those systems procured in the previous options.

      Finally, the most severe cost-cutting option would mean outlays of just $9.7 billion yearly, but also would mean the United States would preserve only one leg of its nuclear triad that now includes the ICBMs, missile-firing submarines and long-range bombers. Only nuclear-missiles submarines would survive. Under “this option the United States would preserve only one leg of its strategic nuclear triad, its SLBM/SSBN force–generally thought to be the most survivable leg of the triad,” the report observes. This would mean the Navy would begin procuring a new SSBN in 2022..

      So those are the options. Now to the matter of how, and how soon, to act upon them. The report says that tough decisions should be made sooner than later:

      “It would be premature, at this point, to make decisions concerning each and every aspect of the United States’ future nuclear offensive strategic forces,” the report states. “However, it may be appropriate, or even urgent, that some decisions concerning these forces be made relatively soon. In any event, now is clearly the time to begin to think seriously about the future of … nuclear offensive strategic forces.

      “Given the long lead times involved in the acquisition of modern weapons systems, decisions made over the next 5-10 years may well–for better of for worse–largely determine how we will modernize much of the … nuclear arsenal through 2035. There is also a danger that if we do not begin to think through our options for these forces today, future opportunities will, by default, be foreclosed. As a result, commitments made to other kinds of forces and weapons programs could crowd out future investments in nuclear offensive strategic forces.

      “Conversely, there is a danger that, absent a discussion now, substantial resources will–as a result of traditional bureaucratic interests and inertia, rather than analysis– be devoted to modernizing a nuclear triad that is of a size and shape that may be neither affordable, nor necessary, to meet … long-term security requirements. Once weapon systems enter the acquisition process, they begin to gain a momentum that makes these programs increasingly difficult to stop, or even modify.

      “Thus, waiting until plans for modernizing … nuclear offensive strategic forces are further along to begin to debate the merits of different options is likely to result in a much more constrained, limited and, to some extent, empty debate.”

      The 90-plus-pages report entitled “Spending on U.S. Strategic Nuclear Forces: Plans & Options for the 21stCentury” can be viewed in entirety by going to on the Web, and then clicking on “latest from CSBA.”

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