The Pentagon discussions are mainly about whether savings can be made in the $213 billion or more that the Defense and Energy departments require over the next 10 years to modernize the current triad of strategic intercontinental-ballistic-missile-launching submarines, land-based ICBMs and long-range bombers, and to upgrade the aging industrial complex that builds and maintains the nuclear warheads and bombs in the stockpile.
Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta has “indicated that there’s been preliminary discussion about maintaining an effective nuclear deterrence capability while reducing the size of our nuclear arsenal.” That’s the way Defense Department spokesman George Little has put it.
The Pentagon review is looking at “strategic needs,” which means threats that could or should be deterred by the U.S. nuclear forces. Based on that, it will study the existing U.S. nuclear “force structure,” which means numbers and types of delivery systems and warheads. And, finally, it will look at U.S. “force posture,” or how many U.S. warheads need to be deployed on sub- or land-based ICBMs or bombers, and whether they should be on alert or in reserve stockpiles.
Cost estimates for replacing these three delivery systems have already grown 25 percent over the past year. During the 2010 debate over the treaty with Russia, the estimate for replacing the strategic submarines, land-based ICBMs and strategic bombers together was $100 billion over 10 years. It is now $124.8 billion, as James N. Miller, principal deputy undersecretary of defense for policy, told the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee on Nov. 3.
What are we talking about for the long run? The ranking Democrat on the subcommittee, Rep. Loretta Sanchez (Calif.), said the current nuclear forces modernization plan estimated that the cost of building just the new fleet of strategic submarines would be $110 billion, but out more than 10 years. The estimate for operating them would be another $250 billion over their 50-year life span.
The Air Force estimate for 100 new strategic bombers, manned or unmanned, is an additional $55 billion, and there is no figure yet for a new generation of land-based ICBMs, she said.
In his April 2009 Prague speech, President Obama said, “To put an end to Cold War thinking, we will reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy and urge others to do the same.” Today’s goal, required by New START, is to have 1,550 deployed warheads on 700 delivery systems by 2018.
Those numbers represent Cold War thinking. They relate to Russia’s forces and what’s needed to deter Moscow. But deter Moscow from what? For that matter, how does the U.S. stockpile of 1,550 warheads deter China, or al-Qaeda or other non-state terrorist groups? U.S. nuclear warheads have not deterred North Korea from trying to build their own, nor do they deter Iran. They may have encouraged their programs.