Nuclear Issues: Words and Deeds (I) By Andrei Akulov

16 January 2014 — — Strategic Culture Foundation

US President Obama has stated his goal of nuclear-free world. The 2010 Nuclear Posture Review said the United States was prepared to reduce its nuclear arsenal to 1,000 warheads or fewer. In the summer of 2013 he offered to launch talks on further strategic arms cuts that Russia refused. Obama’s guidance directed the Pentagon to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in the overall U.S. security strategy and narrow the focus of nuclear strategy to deterrence, the White House 2013 fact sheet states. Many started to say the US has lost interest in nukes, while the plans to lower the threshold hit the snag in the form of Russia’s refusal to follow suit. The NATO’s 2012 Deterrence and Defence Posture Review document links changes in the alliance’s nuclear posture to Russia’s nuclear policy by stating that «NATO is prepared to consider further reducing its requirement for non-strategic nuclear weapons assigned to the Alliance in the context of reciprocal steps by Russia». In a June 19, 2013 address at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, Obama said,«We may no longer live in fear of global annihilation, but so long as nuclear weapons exist, we are not truly safe». Sounds emotionally moving. The view is spread around that after Obama proposed a new round of nuclear arms cuts with Russia in June in Berlin, Moscow immediately rejected that proposal and continues to reject it (and to grow and modernize its nuclear arsenal). By the end of last year Russian President Vladimir Putin made a string of statements announcing intentions to keep the country’s strategic nuclear deterrent robust with new systems coming into the inventory. All these issues are to top the propaganda agenda before the Nuclear Security Summit to be held in the Hague on 24 and 25 March 2014. Obama announced that the United States would also host a nuclear security summit in 2016

Has the US really «lost interest in nukes»? Does Russia boost its potential without any reason or provocation? Does this argument hold water? Or is it a retaliatory measure on the part of Moscow to keep up the existing balance? A cursory look at facts will help to make a judgment…

US: no sliding back on nukes even in times of stringent budget

Congress is facing the $1.2 trillion across-the-board cuts to the federal budget over the next ten years under the 2011 Budget Control Act. No matter that, a full-scale overhaul of the country’s nuclear arsenal is underway. The modernization of the US nuclear arsenal includes some 5,113 warheads, the platforms and production facilities. It has been conservatively estimated at $355 billion over the coming decade by nonpartisan think tank the Stimson Center. This figure coincides with the Congressional Budget Office estimates, as one can see below. However, the Center’s report says the expenditure could rise, especially if the hugely vital but publicly undervalued task is put off any longer. Obama made a bargain with Senate Republicans in 2010, promising modernization of the nuclear arsenal to secure approval of the New Start arms reduction agreement with Russia.

According to the newly published figures of the Federation of Atomic Scientists (FAS), the U.S. currently has a stockpile of 4,650 nuclear warheads, 2,130 of which are operational. In addition to the 4,650 warheads, Washington has 2,700 retired ones that have yet to be dismantled. According to the FAS estimates, currently «1,620 strategic warheads are deployed on ballistic missiles—1,150 on submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMS) and 470 on intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs); roughly 300 strategic warheads are located at bomber bases in the United States; and nearly 200 nonstrategic warheads are deployed in Europe».

The US will spend $1 trillion maintaining and modernizing its nuclear arsenal over the next thirty years, according to the report Trillion Dollar Nuclear Triad: US Strategic Modernization over the Next 30 Years, which was released on January 7, 2014 by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS), a distinguished independent think tank. It states «Procurement of replacement platforms and associated warheads will peak during a four to six year window, sometime after 2020». During this peak period, the United States will have to spend three percent of its annual defense budgets on its nuclear arsenal. This is similar to the percentage of the defense budget that was devoted to modernizing the U.S. nuclear arsenal during Ronald Reagan in the 1980s» as the authors Jon B. Wolfsthal, Jeffrey Lewis and Marc Quint note. 

The Obama administration’s plans will cost the country about $355 billion over the next decade, the Congressional Budget Office said on Dec. 20, 2013. That is nearly $150 billion more than administration’s $208.5 billion estimate in a report to Congress last year, an analyst at an arms control group said, and since the modernization effort is just beginning, costs are expected to greatly increase after 2023. The budget office said President Barack Obama had requested $23.1 billion for U.S. nuclear forces in the 2014 fiscal year, including $18 billion to maintain the weapons and supporting laboratories as well as the submarines, bombers and missiles to deliver the weapons. In the decade to 2013, the administration’s plans to modernize and maintain submarines, bombers and missiles had cost about $136 billion, the CBO said in a 25-page report.

The US is in the process of modernizing all of its existing strategic delivery systems and refurbishing the warheads they carry to last for the next 20-30 years or more. U.S. nuclear delivery systems are undergoing continual modernization, including complete rebuilds of the Minuteman III ICBM and Trident II SLBM. The U.S. Navy currently envisions purchasing 12 new SSBNs to replace the 14 Ohio-class SSBNs that will be gradually retired. Each of the new 12 is projected to cost between $4-6 billion. The service lives of Trident Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines are being extended. Additionally, a new submarine, the SSBNX, which will replace the existing Ohio-class, is undergoing development and is expected to cost about $100 billion, according to the Congressional Budget Office. The Navy now plans to purchase the first SSBNX in 2021, the second in 2024, and one per year between 2026 and 2035. The first boat is scheduled to become operational in 2031. As a result, the Navy will field 10 ballistic missile submarines between 2030 and 2040.

The Air Force is developing a new long range penetrating bomber (LRPB) with nuclear capabilities. It continually modernizes the B-2 (the B-52H bomber is upgraded too) fleet, which first became operational in 1997 and is expected to last through 2058. The service is currently researching a replacement for the ALCM, the Long Range Standoff cruise missile (LRSO).The Air Force plans for initial production of the new cruise missile around 2025, if it decides to move forward with the LRSO. The U.S. stockpile of nuclear warheads and bombs is continually refurbished through NNSA’s Life Extension Program (LEP).

The United States Air Force currently deploys 450 Minuteman III ICBMs located at F.E. Warren Air Force Base, Wyoming; Malmstrom Air Force Base, Montana; and Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota. A $7 billion life extension program is underway to keep the ICBMs safe, secure and reliable through 2020, and General Robert Kehler, the Commander in Chief of STRATCOM, has said the modernization programs may keep the Minuteman III viable through 2030. The modernization program has resulted in an essentially «new» missile, expanded targeting options, and improved accuracy and survivability. The Air Force is currently exploring whether to extend service of the Minuteman III missile to 2050 or to field a new system. The Air Force is also upgrading the Minuteman’s nuclear warheads by partially replacing older W78 warheads with newer and more powerful W87 warheads, formerly deployed on the now-retired MX Peacekeeper ICBMs. The Air Force and Navy are also exploring a joint LEP to field a common, refurbished warhead to replace the W78 and W88.

A program to modernize the B61 nuclear bomb is underway. The B61 warhead is the main nuclear weapon used both by the air leg of the US strategic triad (consisting of bombers, ICBMs, submarines) and by US and NATO theater strike aircraft. It has one, albeit very important, purpose: to provide nuclear deterrence.

European governments have said on numerous occasions they would like to see those weapons removed. Instead, the weapons are expected to be upgraded with enhanced military capabilities. 

The first B-61-12 is expected to be completed by 2020. By 2024, all the old bombs are expected to be replaced. Then, according to the plan, the new weapons will be deployable using fighter jets like the F-16, the new F-35 and with strategic bombers like the B-2 “Spirit” or the planned new LRSB bomber.

Experts view the B-61-12 as far more than a pure life-extension programor slightly upgraded version of the old bombs. Instead, they consider it to be, de facto, a weapon with new military capabilities – a development that would seem to violate the spirit of US President Barack Obama’s stated pledge of not creating any new nuclear weapons or ones with new specifications. 

“The B61 is the only weapon in the stockpile that fulfills both tactical and strategic missions,” General Robert Kehler, head of Strategic Command, told a congressional hearing on November 6, 2013. The B61 thermonuclear warhead is likely to cost $10 billion over five years.

Götz Neuneck of the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy in Hamburg sees the onus being put onto the incoming German government.“They should make it clear to Washington that Europe does not need the new bombs and will not make any delivery systems available for it.” In addition, NATO must urgently make concrete offers to Russia with regards to the controversial US missile defense system, which is seen by Moscow as a threat. “If all this fails,” said Neuneck, “new tactical nuclear weapons will be stationed in Europe, and nuclear disarmament will be impossible for decades.”

Some in the arms control community also claim modernizing the nuclear triad is unnecessary strategically. Joseph Cirincione, President of the Ploughshares Fund, writes in his recent book Nuclear Nightmares: Securing the World Before It Is Too Late, «The U.S. nuclear arsenal is still configured to counter the Cold War threat of a massive Russian nuclear attack…. Reconfiguring the nuclear force to address the actual twenty-first-century threat environment could reduce force numbers dramatically over the next decade without sacrificing vital military missions».

(Part II)