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  • What the Ploughshares Fund is actually doing with its proposed budget cuts, it appears, is trying to camouflage the objectives of permanently disarming America of key parts of its nuclear capability.

  • Describing the U.S. nuclear force structure as a "Cold War relic" says nothing about whether the force is still needed. Oddly, the nuclear cuts being proposed do not require any reciprocal Russian reductions.

  • Cutting $20 billion a year from the current U.S. nuclear deterrent would require killing all modernization, plus all the work of extending the life of nuclear warheads. In 20 years, the U.S. would be left with no effective nuclear deterrent, while China, Russia and North Korea are modernizing their nuclear deterrents across the board.

  • "You have to invent a 'Dragon' to slay." — U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks, explaining how to kill defense programs.

  • In Washington, a delay often has the same impact as killing a program.

It has been 33 years since the U.S. last embarked on a nuclear modernization program.

Both the Secretary of the Navy and Secretary of Defense have called for a debate over what the future costs of the nuclear deterrent enterprise should be and what investment is needed to keep the peace and prevent nuclear war.

At issue is whether the United States can afford to spend 4% of its defense budget and 0.6% of all federal spending to modernize its nuclear deterrent over the next decade and beyond.

Two widely divergent views are emerging.

The first is that a plan is necessary to modernize the U.S. nuclear capability to keep it a robust and credible deterrent in the face of advances currently being made by China and Russia and North Korea in their nuclear programs

This view is shared by most of Congress and the administration. Congress declared -- and the administration concurred -- in 2010, in the Resolution of Ratification of the New START treaty with Russia, "that United States deterrence is assured by a robust triad of strategic delivery vehicles"[1] and as such was "committed to modernize... the triad [silo based missiles on land, submarines at sea and bombers in the air][2] ... for the long term."[3]

The U.S. nuclear "triad" consists of nuclear warheads mounted on platforms based at sea, in the air and on land.

In addition, this view is also associated with support for making more defense funds available to protect our security, including for our nuclear deterrent. That point was made in July 2014 by the National Defense Panel, and most recently by Congressman Randy Forbes (R-Va.) and Senator Mark Rubio (R-Fl.).

On the other side, the Ploughshares Fund, a group pushing for zero nuclear weapons globally, claims that planned nuclear spending will be much higher than the Defense Department (DOD) is admitting. Ploughshares claims that fully modernizing the U.S. nuclear deterrent would require between $570-700 billion over the next ten years, more than triple the current DOD projections.

Ploughshares argues that the defense budget spending caps agreed to in 2011 for the subsequent ten years means that nuclear spending should be cut significantly over the next ten years because 1) we cannot afford the full modernization of our nuclear forces, and 2) nuclear weapons are, after all, increasingly obsolete and not needed.

What are the facts?

In four recent highly regarded assessments, below, of the U.S. nuclear deterrent budgets, the current year's expenditures are pegged at $23 billion a year and project future average annual spending at upwards of $27-$35 billion. None comes anywhere close to the "fuzzy math" estimates of Ploughshares.

According to the office of the Secretary of Defense, current nuclear deterrent spending is $23 billion a year. That was also the expert testimony to Congress in 2012 of former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy James N. Miller.

According to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO),[4] the U.S. Department of Defense is projected to spend on average $35 billion a year for the next decade as nuclear modernization goes into effect, compared to the $23 billion the CBO agrees we are spending today.

Similar spending estimates were calculated in both a 2009 study by the Mitchell Institute of the Air Force Association[5] and a 2012 Stimson Center study, entitled, "Costing Nuclear Weapons."

The Mitchell study detailed the costs of a hypothetical future modernization program, but one that turned out to be very close to the U.S.'s actual currently-planned force of submarines, bombers and land based missiles. The study determined that the annual investment costs would average $6.25 billion for replacing or modernizing 450 new ICBMs, 14 submarines (two more than currently planned), and sustaining the bomber force, which includes a new bomber air-launched cruise missile.[6]

The study added into the mix annual operations and maintenance costs of $5.4 billion for the platforms of submarines[7], bombers and land-based missiles, for a total nuclear force modernization cost of $12 billion a year.

To get the full costs of the U.S. nuclear deterrent enterprise, one also has to add to the Mitchell numbers the associated nuclear warhead work at the National Nuclear Security Administration ($7.4 billion) and the command-and-control nuclear related costs, ($4.2 billion).[8] Those additions would bring the total nuclear deterrent enterprise costs to roughly $23 billion a year right in line with other mainstream estimates.

Total costs for a decade, therefore, — using the Mitchell and Stimson Center studies[9] — would be $228-$280 billion -- not $570+ billion that Ploughshares estimates. While they are not insignificantly less than the CBO numbers of $350 billion, they are a huge 50-70% less than the Ploughshares spending estimates of $570-$700 billion over a decade.

Nevertheless, it is the grossly exaggerated Ploughshares estimates that are being used by those opposed to the U.S. plan to modernize its nuclear capability.

Based on the large Ploughshares numbers for nuclear expenditures, Senator Ed Markey (D-Mass) in the Senate and Congressman Earl Blumenauer (D-Oregon) in the House introduced in Congress what they call the SANE Act, the Smarter Approach to Nuclear Expenditures. Senator Markey's plan would cut $100 billion from planned nuclear deterrent budgets over the next decade.

The SANE act would cut the new nuclear-armed sea-based fleet from a planned 12 submarines to 8,[10] and stop development of both a new replacement for the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) and a new strategic bomber.

Unfortunately, that round of cuts may be only the first being sought by the Senator. Previously, Senator Markey had relied on even bigger estimates for future nuclear deterrent spending from the Ploughshares Fund to support nuclear cuts of $200 billion -- not $100 billion -- over the next decade.[11]

In 2011, for instance, Ploughshares estimated that the annual cost of US nuclear deterrence was not $57 billion (their earlier estimates) but $70 billion.[12]

Markey had then proposed that nuclear deterrent spending be cut not by $100 billion, but by $200 billion over the next ten years.

That is a cut in the range of 35-70% from future strategic nuclear deterrent funding and upwards of 90% of current spending. Either cut would totally devastate the U.S. nuclear deterrent capability.[13]

What is going on here?

Years ago, Congressman Norm Dicks, a leading defense expert and member of the defense subcommittee of the House appropriations committee, explained how to kill defense programs you do not like. He said, "You have to invent a 'Dragon' to slay."

So Ploughshares made two dragons to slay. It first designated "nuclear weapons" their "Dragon to Slay." Then it claimed that this "Dragon" would become a "Trillion" dollar one.

So how did $23 billion a year in nuclear spending all of a sudden get to $57-70 billion a year and then $1 trillion over the next few decades?

First, Ploughshares adopted enough assumptions -- however wrong-headed -- that eventually got them to the "right" dragon-number.[14]

They adopted, for example, the idea of adding missile defense spending to the category of "nuclear weapons" when in the defense budget it is solely under Defense Wide, Army and Navy conventional forces accounts but not nuclear.

This insertion alone adds upwards of $10 billion year to their "nuclear" number,[15] even though 90% of American missile-defense funding goes to build missile-defenses such as Iron Dome or Patriot, which are designed to protect people against non-nuclear conventional missile strikes. These are not nuclear systems by any stretch of the imagination.

Next, Ploughshares ignored that nuclear bomber costs are relatively small, (the nuclear component of a new dual-capable bomber is only 3% of the total bomber cost).

The U.S. needs a new conventional bomber irrespective of whether is it going to have a nuclear capability or not.

But if you take the entire cost of the new conventional bomber modernization program, as well as the costs of existing bombers -- both nuclear and conventional capable -- and simply count everything as if it is a nuclear program, that will add tens of billions of dollars to annual "nuclear spending" by a simple rhetorical sleight of hand.[16]

The cook-the-book experts at Ploughshares, however, were not done. Instead of estimating nuclear budget costs for one year, as every administration does when it submits its annual budget to Congress, they adopted various spending estimates for up to three decades.[17]

Redefined "nuclear budget" estimates suddenly grew very rapidly. They in fact reached the "magic" attention-getting "trillion" dollar mark.

Thus, the "Dragon" was born.

Ploughshares then had to invent a way to trash the value of nuclear deterrence, as an argument to "slay" the dreaded "Dragon" it had invented.

Ploughshares argued that since nuclear weapons did not deter the attacks of 9-11, they are obviously no longer useful.[18] But no American military or law enforcement capability of any kind -- not just nuclear weapons -- stopped the attacks of 9-11.

Then they added to that argument what missile defense expert Uzi Rubin describes as a "fortune cookie analysis".[19] They argued that as nuclear weapons are relics of the Cold War, "what good are they?"

It is true that many of the weapons systems in our conventional arsenal today were deployed or under development during the Cold War.

But as USAF Lt Gen James Kowalski, the Vice Commander of the U.S. Strategic Command, explained about nuclear weapons: "I don't think we're any more a Cold War force than an aircraft carrier, or Special Ops, or the UH-1 helicopter."[20]

After the end of the Cold War, as USAF General Garrett Harencak argued, the U.S. went on an extended "procurement holiday." In short, the U.S. did not modernize its forces, nuclear or conventional, for nearly two decades. The U.S. also delayed modernization, a lapse that has led to the current problem of having to modernize most elements of America's nuclear deterrent simultaneously, as well as key parts of its conventional forces.

One example can illustrate how serious this failure is. U.S. Air Force planes now average 26 years of age. When President Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980, the "hollow" military that so worried the country had an Air Force whose planes at that time averaged 12 years of age.[21]

As a result, much of the technology and equipment now used in the U.S. armed forces, including nuclear forces, is in fact the same as at the end of the Cold War.

Should these conventional weapons be dramatically cut as well?

In fact, describing the U.S. nuclear force structure as a "Cold War relic"[22] says nothing about whether the force is still needed.

So, having claimed that much of nuclear arsenal is not needed because it is, after all, so much "Cold War" stuff, Ploughshares can now use its fuzzy cost-estimates to advantage.

As Senator Markey has argued, for example, if the U.S. is now spending upwards of $70 billion a year on nuclear weapons,[23] (which if true would be a level higher in current-year dollars than what the U.S. was spending during the height of the Cold War), doesn't it make sense, when faced with serious budget deficits, to cut, say, $20 billion a year from the nuclear enterprise?

But cutting $20 billion a year from the current nuclear deterrent of the U.S. would require killing all modernization of the U.S. triad of nuclear forces, plus all the work extending the life of nuclear warheads.

And that is what the Ploughshares Fund has variously proposed: pushing to delay the strategic nuclear bomber and eliminate the Minuteman land-based missiles. In a recent essay, Ploughshares additionally claimed that the current nuclear submarine force replacement program might not be needed either. Writes Ploughshares, "We have not yet determined whether we will need... any... of the bombs they [submarines] will carry."[24]

In short, Ploughshares has proposed to either eliminate or delay the modernization of every leg of the nuclear triad even if, as a result, each element risks becoming obsolete in the near term.

This means that in about 20 years, the U.S. would be left with no effective or credible nuclear deterrent, just as China and Russia are modernizing their nuclear deterrents across the board.[25]

If adopted together, all these Ploughshare recommendations would leave America with an aging, obsolete nuclear deterrent, one totally inadequate to meet current or future threats as it "rusts to obsolescence."[26]

While Senator Markey and his Congressional allies are calling for a "delay" in the bomber and ICBM modernization programs, in Washington a delay often has the same impact as killing a program. Just think of the Keystone pipeline. A decision to delay its approval in order to "review" the pipeline program was made more than 74 months, or six years, ago.

What the proposed Ploughshares budget cuts are actually doing, it appears, is trying to camouflage the objective of permanently disarming America of key parts of its nuclear capability.

Such disarmament would place in jeopardy not only America's own security but also that of the more than 31 nations that rely upon its nuclear umbrella for their security.

Why has the press not seen this disarmament strategy for what it is, and what is the alternative?

The best way forward is the nuclear deterrent roadmap adopted in December 2010 and, since then, supported largely by the administration and overwhelmingly by Congress -- so far. As funded in the past five defense bills, the roadmap begins prudently to modernize the triad of forces the U.S. now has, while simultaneously reducing the warheads in its arsenal that eventually it will keep.[27]

To be clear, the U.S. will not be adding thousands of new nuclear bombs to the nuclear force, as Ploughshares claims. Modernizing yes, but while reducing total deployed warheads.

One poll, sponsored by the Stimson Center, found that 67% of American respondents agreed that modernizing the U.S. nuclear deterrent -- replacing old systems while also pursuing strategic stability and arms control -- made sense as an overall military strategy.[28]

This modernization is a replacement program that will responsibly reduce America's nuclear force structure from 14 to 12 submarines, while keeping 400 operational ICBMs out of 450 silos and 60 strategic nuclear bombers.

Modernization will occur even as the U.S. reduces the number of nuclear warheads to 1550, as allowed by the 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT) -- but down from 2200, the number allowed during the George W. Bush era.

This new, lower, warhead level, last attained during the Eisenhower administration, is significantly down from the more than 13,000 deployed warheads the U.S. maintained at the height of the Cold War.

Such a plan makes sense.

It is appropriate for America's political leaders to see to it that the U.S. is prepared to defend itself and its allies. They must be open with the American people and explain that spending 4-5% of the defense budget and six-tenths of 1% of the federal budget on deterring nuclear war is a prudent, affordable and urgently needed investment in the nation's defense.[29]

Given Russia's recent aggression in Ukraine, further bilateral nuclear reductions between the Russians and the United States are at best a remote possibility.

But as William Broad hinted in the New York Times, a significant reduction of nuclear weapons can always be done unilaterally by the United States, bypassing the need for any arms control deal with Russia.

Oddly, the nuclear cuts being proposed by Senator Markey do not require any reciprocal Russian reductions, such as one would get in a bilateral arms control agreement. The U.S. nuclear cuts would be, as Ploughshares also proposes, unilateral, despite the current massive nuclear build-up by Russia and China.

There thus is a choice before us.

Should the U.S. recklessly make nuclear cuts unilaterally, in search of a hoped-for world, free of nuclear weapons?

Or should the U.S. pause in making further reductions in nuclear weapons, and modernize its nuclear forces to the level of nuclear weapons allowed by the 2010 New START treaty between the U.S. and Russia? And should the U.S. just get on with the task, tough as it is, to keep the peace, maintain the deterrent, "and provide for the common defense"?

As former Congressman Norm Dicks said on July 12, 2012 about America's nuclear weapons: "They are a good deterrent and they have been an effective deterrent. Thank God for that."

[1] From paper prepared for Senator James M. Inhofe, Ranking member of the Senate Committee on Armed Services, November 2013.

[2] Declaration 12, New START Resolution of Ratification, December 22, 2010.

[3] Letter from President Obama to Senators Daniel Inouye,(D-HA) Thad Cochran,(R-MS); Diane Feinstein (D-CA) and Lamar Alexander (R-TN), December 20, 2011.

[4] Report - "Projected Costs of U.S. Nuclear Forces, 2014 to 2023" by the Congressional Budget Office. December 2013. (pdf); "Budgets for Operating, Sustaining, and Modernizing the Strategic Nuclear Triad", "Cost of U.S. Nuclear Forces, by Department and Function".

[5] "Triad, Dyad, Monad? Shaping the US Nuclear Force for the Future," Mitchell Institute for Airpower Studies, Mitchell Paper #5, December 2009.

[6] "Triad, Dyad, Monad? Shaping the US Nuclear Force for the Future," Mitchell Institute for Airpower Studies, Mitchell Paper #5, December 2009, Table #3, p.27.

[7] Data from remarks of General (ret.) Frank Klotz, Maj. Gen. Garrett Harencak, and Lt. Gen Steven Wilson, at the September 18, 2014 Symposium on the Future Roadmap of the Strategic Nuclear Enterprise, held at the Army Navy Club in Washington, D.C. and "Triad, Dyad, Monad? Shaping the US Nuclear Force for the Future", Mitchell Institute for Airpower Studies, Mitchell Paper #5, December 2009.

[8] Based on Mitchell Study of December 2009 and Stimson Center study of June 2012, and author's own additional analysis.

[9] The Mitchell Study assessed the ten-year costs at $228 billion while the Stimson Center study (adjusted by the author by removing missile defense and other non-nuclear related costs) assessed the ten years costs at roughly $280 billion.

[10] "Legislation to Reduce Nuclear Weapons Spending Introduced", Mar 3, 2014 - SANE - "A high-profile U.S. Senate critic of nuclear-weapons spending on Friday introduced a bill that would cut $100 billion over the next ... and national security," Senator Markey said in a press release on the SANE Act.

[11] Senator Markey's proposed cut of $200 was announced by the Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL) as well as the Council for a Livable World on September 29, 2011. They both praised then Representative Markey for sending a letter along with 64 House members entitled "Freeze the Nukes, Fund the Future" to the Congressional Super Committee calling for "a cut of $20 billion a year or $200 billion over the next ten years, from the US nuclear weapons budget."

[12] "What Nuclear Weapons Cost Us;" Ploughshares Fund Working Paper, September 2012. (Annual estimates of nuclear spending in this paper are $640 billion over a decade while other Ploughshares Fund estimates range from $57 billion to $70 billion annually).

[13] Cutting $20 billion a year from the current nuclear deterrent budget of $23 billion would obviously gut the U.S. strategic nuclear deterrent capability. If that amount were cut from future annual estimated budgets of $30-35 billion, it would still decimate America's deterrent capability.

[14] "What Nuclear Weapons Cost Us;" Ploughshares Fund Working Paper, September 2012.

[15] One of the original studies to include missile defense expenditures in what was termed nuclear deterrent spending was the 2006 "Spending on US Strategic Nuclear Forces: Plans & Options for the 21st Century" by Steven M. Kosiak of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA). Other studies by the Congressional Budget Office, (CBO) in Dec. 2013 and Stimson Center in June 2012 followed suit.

[16] Adding in a notional percent of the bomber costs (25%) to the nuclear accounts was adopted by the CBO in its 2012 study, while higher percentages of the strategic bomber costs were added to the nuclear accounts by both the CSBA and the Stimson studies referenced above and subsequently adopted by Ploughshares among other arms control groups.

[17] One of the first times an anti-nuclear organization estimated the cost of nuclear weapons over multiple decades was the report entitled "The Trillion Dollar Nuclear Triad" by Jon B. Wolfsthal, Jeffrey Lewis and Marc Quint, of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Monterey, California, in January 2014.

The "Trillion" dollar price tag was then subsequently adopted by the Ploughshares Fund, even as that organization was claiming annual nuclear related spending was variously $57 to $70 billion annually, which would imply a three-decade cost of $1.5 to $2.1 trillion.

One arms control analyst, Kingston Rief of Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation has concluded that a realistic cost-estimate of nuclear modernization over the next three decades could be as low as $600 billion, a not insignificant $400 billion less than the $1 trillion estimated cost often used by opponents of modernization.

[18] See "America's Forgotten nuclear missile crews." See also "Bombs Away" by Bruce Blair, Brian Weeden, and Damon Bosetti, International New York Times; and from WarScapes by Russ Wellen, April 9, 2019, "The Real Reason Missile Launch Officers Cheat."

[19] The former head of the Israeli Missile Defense Agency, Uzi Rubin, once quipped that anyone can come up with a snappy "fortune cookie" analysis. "Relic" of the Cold War is one.

[20] Air Force Association, National Defense Industrial Association and Reserve Officers Association Capitol Hill Breakfast Forum, July 31, 2013, with Lt Gen General James Kowalski, Commander, United States Air Force Global Strike Command, on "Nuclear Deterrence, Prompt Strike, and Triad Perspectives."

[21] "The Nuclear Enterprise," Maj Gen Garrett Harencak, AFA - Air & Space Conference and Technology Exposition, 16 September 2014. The USAF data is from a personal communication with Gen (ret.) Michael J. Dunn, past President of the Air Force Association and National Defense University.

[22] "Is the Triad Cost Effective?"; and "The Unrealistic Budgets and Nasty Politics of Nuclear Weapons"

[23] LA Times, October 21, 2014 "How big a nuclear arsenal do we really need?" by Joe Cirincione. The $70 billion a year figure was used by then Congressman Edward Markey, quoting remarks by Ploughshares President Joe Cirincione, in a letter the Congressman and 34 of his House colleagues wrote to the Congressional Super Committee, October 11, 2011.

[24] LA Times, October 21, 2014 "How big a nuclear arsenal do we really need?" by Joe Cirincione. Authors note: The need to replace the U.S. submarine fleet in a timely basis is not well understood. Each year after 2027, one U.S. submarine has to be retired: its hull cannot be certified to remain stable with greater service. Even today, the planned service life of the current submarine force is greater than the U.S. has ever previously relied on. In addition, R&D costs for the program remain fixed, whether four, eight or 12 submarines are built. Savings only occur when the program is terminated.

[25] An excellent summary of the strategic nuclear modernization effort of both China and Russia can be found on the Air Force Association website: Steve Blank (AFPC) and Mark Schneider (NIPP), May 23, 2014, "New Trends in Russian Nuclear Defense Strategy; and Russian Nuclear Modernization and Security Challenges;" and Gordon Chang, Rick Fischer, and Ed Timberlake, May 20, 2014, "China's Rise, US Deterrent Challenges: the Realities of the Second Nuclear Age."

[26] This term was first used by Clark Murdock, the director of the Program on Nuclear Initiatives (PONI) at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in remarks to the AFA-NDIA, ROA Congressional Breakfast Seminar Series on Nuclear Deterrence and Arms Control in May 2013.

[27] "Modernizing US Nuclear Forces", from Senator James Inhofe, Senate Armed Services Committee, November 2013.

[28] Program for Public Consultation, Consulting the People on National Security Spending, May 12, 2012, provided by the Stimson Center.

[29] Here is an excellent summary in chart form published in December 2013 by Senator Gary Inhofe, the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee of the relative level of nuclear deterrent spending and investment from 1962 and projected to 2017, and expressed in terms of the percent of the DOD budget. Note that during the Cuban missile crisis, the U.S. was spending 17% of the DOD budget on nuclear weapons, and 11% during the Reagan modernization period. By comparison, projections (see table below) are that nuclear modernization costs might approach 4% of the defense budget.

Another look at nuclear spending was an August 1996 Atomic Audit: The Costs and Consequences of U.S. Nuclear Weapons Since 1940 . Edited by Stephen I. Schwartz, it concluded the U.S. government spent $5.5 trillion in the 57 years from 1940-1966 on all nuclear and nuclear deterrent related programs, implying an average annual expenditure of $100 billion (adjusted to today's dollars).

At the time of its publication, this author discussed the study with Schwartz, to determine what assumptions went into his conclusions. In particular, his view was that current nuclear expenditures at the time were roughly $57 billion a year -- the number also used by the 2006 CSBA study referenced above.

Both estimates use the same, possibly faulty assumptions, to come up with the same numbers. As a historical review, this book has much information but its characterization of much spending as "nuclear related" is in this author's view, far too expansive.

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