Using Defense Funds To “Reduce the Role of Nuclear Weapons” Irresponsible

  • Reducing the nuclear modernization budget is incompatible with maintaining a “strong, credible nuclear deterrent.” You can’t have it both ways.
  • With nuclear modernization already late-to-need, delays could stick the U.S. with Cold War capabilities whose deterrence value erodes as they continue to age.
  • Never before has the United States had to deter two peer adversaries—and deter them differently—at the same time.

The administration is sending mixed signals on nuclear modernization.

The president’s “skinny budget” declares it would maintain “a strong, credible nuclear deterrent for the security of the Nation and U.S. allies.” Yet his Interim National Security Strategy Guidance states: “We will take steps to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy while ensuring our strategic deterrent remains safe, secure, and effective.”

Those “steps” might include cutting the nuclear modernization budget. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Leonor Tomero recently suggested as much, stressing that “some plans are very expensive.”

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But reducing the nuclear modernization budget is incompatible with maintaining a “strong, credible nuclear deterrent.” You can’t have it both ways—cuts to modernization programs would likely weaken deterrence in the face of advancing nuclear threats.

The notion that the U.S. can maintain a strong deterrent while cutting the nuclear modernization budget flies in the face of repeated warnings, most recently voiced by both Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. John Hyten and Commander of U.S. Strategic Command Adm. Charles Richard, that nuclear modernization is already “late-to-need.”

After years of deferring the recapitalization of nuclear systems, the United States has no choice but to provide the necessary funding or face delays in key delivery schedules. Of course, cost savings based on engineering or manufacturing efficiencies would be welcome, but making reductions that would delay or harm programs for the sake of saving money would ignore the current reality.

To that point, last year former Pentagon acquisition chief Ellen Lord testified that even minor cuts to the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD)—the replacement program for intercontinental ballistic missiles—would result in schedule delays.

With nuclear modernization already late-to-need, delays could stick the United States with Cold War capabilities whose deterrence value erodes as they continue to age.