Achieving Deterrence at an Affordable Cost

by Michael Tint

Current plans for modernizing the U.S. nuclear arsenal are simply not affordable.  The U.S. needs a new approach to produce the maximum arsenal at minimum expense.

For more than two decades, the U.S. has enjoyed the luxury of a Cold War-style nuclear arsenal without Cold War expense. The reductions in nuclear arms during the 1990s meant that the nuclear triad – the trinity of long range bombers, land based intercontinental ballistic missiles, and submarine launched ballistic missiles designed to ensure maximum survivability and flexibility in case of nuclear war – could be maintained at relatively little expense. Unfortunately, stockpiles do not last forever, and the U.S. nuclear arsenal will need block replacement in the near future. To cost-effectively revamp this arsenal, the U.S. will need to rethink its current approach.

Current plans call for replacing or upgrading all three triad legs. This means creating a new ballistic missile submarine (the SSBN-X), a new heavy bomber (the LRS-B) and an as-yet-unnamed new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). These delivery vehicles also require new warheads; the current “3+2” plan envisions three new warheads for the missile and submarine forces plus two designed for delivery by aircraft. Other projected expenses include upgrades to plutonium handling and command and control facilities, and a new air launched cruise missile. Even before sequestration, the cost of these programs was expected to be difficult to manage. Current projections for the total cost of the arsenal already run to one trillion dollars over the next thirty years, and the Government Accountability Office has repeatedly warned that these figures are, at best, optimistic. The odds of any one, much less every one, of these programs coming in on time and on budget are slim. Considering the likelihood of continued sequestration-level funding, these programs are simply not affordable.

At the same time, the justification of the triad itself is in question. It is widely agreed that submarine-launched ballistic missiles are the most reliable and survivable of nuclear weapons. France and the United Kingdom rely on them exclusively. The primary argument for the other two legs of the triad, however, relate to cost. Ballistic missile submarines are expensive to build and operate and, unlike bombers, are useful only for their nuclear mission. Since a new bomber will be procured to replace the aging B-52, B-1, and B-2 fleets regardless of nuclear policy, it might seem logical to assume that procuring nuclear ordnance for that bomber would be a relatively cheap way to increase nuclear capability. Unfortunately, this does not seem to be the case in practice. The current projections for modernizing and then replacing the B61 family of bombs already run to more than 10 billion dollars for new warheads, 10 to 20 billion for the air launched cruise missile that carries them, and substantial additional expenses for equipping bombers to carry these weapons; in total nearly 50 billion dollars, or half as much as the entire LRS-B program.

The advantage land-based intercontinental missiles have over submarine-launched missiles is also their supposedly much lower cost. Land-based silos are considerably less expensive to build and operate than nuclear-powered submarines. However, projections for the cost of replacing existing ICBMs have already run to nearly 100 billion dollars, despite the program not yet even having a proper name. The low operating costs of land-based silos are compelling, but only if there were not an alternative to such a massive up-front expenditure. Fortunately, the US has a long-range ballistic missile in production – the D5 Trident.

Designed for launch from submarines, Trident missiles have a somewhat shorter range than existing intercontinental missiles, but still enough to strike virtually anywhere in the Northern Hemisphere from bases in Maine and Alaska without modification. Were the missile lightened by removing the systems necessary for submerged launch, this range would be extended. Other modifications can also be made to extend the missile’s range. Because the Trident has three completely separate sets (or stages) of engines and fuel that fire in sequence, each can be separately and economically modified. Free of the size constraints imposed by submarines, a land based Trident could extend its range by enlarging the first stage. The second and third stages would be unaffected by such a change, dramatically lowering any development costs. Even if this single stage were to cost as much as the rest of the missile put together, the combined cost would still be lower than even the most optimistic of estimates for the full ICBM replacement effort.

In order to achieve the largest possible arsenal for the least investment, the US military should forgo the development of the new ICBM and the 3+2 plan. Absent the need for the massive nuclear forces of the Cold War, strategic deterrence can be achieved cost effectively solely with land and sea-based missile forces. These forces could share a single missile (the Trident) and a single warhead. This would result in hundreds of billions of dollars in savings that could offset future cost overruns and be invested in conventional forces.

Michael Tint holds a degree in political science from Haverford College specializing in organizational design and foreign affairs. A former congressional campaign staffer, English teacher, and circus hand, he currently works as a research assistant at the George Mason School of Public Policy.