How Much Could We Save By Slashing Nuclear Defense? Here’s The Breakdown

Nuclear missiles and USA flag in background. 3D rendered illustration. (Media credit vchal/Shutterstock)

Peter Huessy Mitchell Institute On Aerospace Studies
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Most observers of the budget wars believe that pending defense spending acquisition requirements will be so large over the next decade that the defense plans have to be pruned back, cut and otherwise put on the shelf in order not to explode Federal deficits.

These same analysts also assume that entitlements cannot be much reduced or reformed.

So, they look to defense budgets for savings.

It is true that over the next 10 years, the United States will see dramatic increases in government health and retirement program costs.

By 2027, Social Security is scheduled to rise says the House Budget Committee by $717 billion annually, while Medicare growth is projected to reach $818 billion annually over and above today’s spending level. Together, the growth by 2027 of just these two programs exceeds $1.5 trillion.

Given these “entitlement” costs are often seen as untouchable, although obvious candidates for reform, a lot of attention is shifted to the defense budget for possible cuts.

And within the defense budget, the nuclear parts are often mentioned as the most sensible place to find cuts. This is particularly true, say these same analysts, given the requirement called for in  nuclear posture reviews that the entire nuclear enterprise be refurbished. A lot of modernization makes for a target rich environment so to speak.

For example, nuclear modernization includes our bombers, submarines and land-based missiles, as well as the warheads on the missiles and bombers. In addition, we have to upgrade our aging command and control systems to meet the new cyber challenges from adversaries we face as a country.

The nuclear modernization component of the defense budget is thus assumed a prime candidate for cuts because it is assumed a very large bill is coming due. For example, a number of studies including a CBO analysis repeated a common assumption that over the next 30 years, the US government is slated to spend $1.2 trillion for nuclear weapons modernization, or $40 billion a year on average.

Even though no other government program costs are usually estimated over a 30-year period, even so, someone has helped “cook the books” to get such numbers.

For example, they include 100% of our bomber modernization force, when in fact a relatively low percentage of the bomber force costs is actually nuclear-related. Plus, it is certain that even in the absence of a nuclear requirement for the bombers, we would be still building a minimum of 100 new B-21 conventional bombers in any case, as called for in the administration’s defense budget.

Realistically, somewhere between 3-5 percent of the bomber costs could be considered just nuclear, and when this and other factors are considered, the $1.2 trillion figure for nuclear costs falls dramatically to $900 billion.

But there is more to the cost estimates that need to be examined. There is a certain amount of funding for the nuclear deterrent enterprise that would be required even if the United States did not modernize or upgrade a single element of our deterrent. So, the claim that new nuclear systems will cost $1.2 trillion is way overstated.

For example, the on-going sustainment costs of the force, even assuming the force could be simply sustained and not upgraded or replaced over the next 30 years, comes to two-thirds of the estimated projected total costs. That’s right: two thirds of the projected nuclear spending bill comes due if we simply tread water and do nothing new.

Thus, the much criticized “arms race” the United States is supposedly engendering by its nuclear modernization effort, currently comes to an estimated $12 billion a year every year over 30 years to upgrade and modernize the platforms of bombers, submarines and land-based missiles.

But a very significant portion of the $26 billion a year (on average) is to simply sustain the current force, including the long process of refurbishing and upgrading the complex of nuclear weapons and warhead facilities. No significantly new nuclear weapons or warhead capability is scheduled. The funds are largely to keep the current force from deteriorating while actually reducing the 12 nuclear warhead types to no more than five.

Why the high cost of the nuclear weapons complex sustainment? Well, after decades long neglect of these facilities — many of which are much the way they were at the end of the Manhattan project that built the first atomic weapons — the cost of bot sustainment and upgrades is steep.

Today, in summary, the annual cost of the entire nuclear deterrent modernization and sustainment enterprise is $27 billion: $14 billion is warhead and weapons facility maintenance and refurbishment; $1 billion is for new command and control; and $12 billion is for all the submarines, bombers and land-based missiles modernization and sustainment.

Two interesting spending comparisons are the government spends $80 billion a year on food stamps or nearly 300 percent of the total nuclear enterprise. And Americans in the private sector spend $13 billion buying movie tickets every year, approximately what we invest in the entire nuclear Triad platforms — a number that certainly is relatively low.

But more interesting than the actual 4 percent we spend of the entire defense budget on nuclear deterrence is the actual numbers associated with the growth in the investment needed to fully modernize the enterprise over the next three decades. That’s the coming modernization bow-wave often referenced as unaffordable.

Let’s look at what we are taking about.

First, the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) has done extraordinary work in this area as has the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). The Mitchell Institute relied on these numbers when we examined two key legs of the Triad in a January 2017 report we did on the bomber and land-based systems.

Over the next decade, FY18-FY27, the growth in new investment required for the modern nuclear enterprise on an average annual basis is $6.5 billion a year, or 13/100ths of 1 percent of the average annual federal projected budget over the next decade. This actually breaks down on average over the next decade to $3.7 billion more a year for the new Columbia class submarine and all other associated nuclear armed submarine costs; $700 million more a year for the nuclear bomber leg of the Triad; and $1.15 billion more a year for the land based, ICBM leg of the Triad.

Now the modernized warheads and command and control systems add an additional annual cost of $1 billion a year over and above the current fiscal year expenditures. This yields a grand total of an average spending increase of $6.5 billion a year to upgrade the most important and significant aspect of our national security, without which the entire American security enterprise and that of our allies is at risk.

While getting rid of the entire nuclear modernization effort is not on the table, some analysts have repeatedly called for the elimination of the bomber and land-based leg of the Triad, based on an apparent fuzzy math equation that sees saving some $2 billion a year in modernization costs compared to what we spend today as the best means of reducing an annual deficit approaching $750 billion and a gross Federal debt of $20 trillion.

Some have even called for cutting the submarine force in half. While this would save an additional $2 billion annually, those savings would not be realized until well into the decade of the 2030’s because that is when the procurement of the Columbia class submarine would be stopped, thus yielding very little if any savings over the next 15 years.

Even more problematic, the elimination of the land-based leg of the Triad and cutting the submarine force as proposed, would leave the United States on a day to day basis with roughly eight strategic targets here in this country and at sea. What’s the significance of such a small number? Well, if these mere eight targets were eliminated by an enemy in a first strike, the enemy would have successfully disarmed the United States of America of its nuclear deterrent, compared to today when the targets are in excess of five hundred.

Our deficit and our debt are, indeed, very much in need of control. Spurring economic growth to generate $250-$300 billion more in annual revenue as we reached in 2005-6 would help. And reducing government spending where unnecessary and where alternatives exist, also would help. GAO says the Federal Government makes $141 billion annually in erroneous payments that, if eliminated, would also help.

We could delay the time at which both Social Security and Medicare kick in. We could also move tens of millions of Americans from welfare to work and significantly reform a welfare establishment that costs in excess of $1 trillion a year. All these actions would be able to significantly change the fiscal landscape for the better.

But it is extraordinarily shortsighted to propose killing key parts of our nuclear deterrent. The savings would be the equivalent of what Uncle Sam spends every four hours. One wonders, are the cuts being proposed to save money or simply because railing against nuclear programs gets the approval of the chattering classes?

Especially when other far more sensible spending-cut options are available, including just the growth in annual entitlement programs. For example, Social Security and Medicare will cost annually $3.1 trillion in 2027 compared to $1.54 trillion today! Just that growth exceeds the entire sustainment and modernization costs of the nuclear enterprise from 2018-2047 by over half a trillion dollars and is 500 percent greater than the entire 30-year cost of just the modernization element of the nuclear deterrent.

In summary, recklessly trashing significant portions of our nuclear deterrent will make only a small nick in the projected spending deficits of the future. And such proposed cuts are dwarfed by enormous spending requirements of an aging and retiring citizenry. That part of the budget needs fixing. Along with some of the reforms mentioned above — if implemented — it gives the United States a shot at getting its fiscal house in order.

Peter Huessy is the director for strategic deterrent studies at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.