American and Russian tactical nuclear arsenals - including 180 US nuclear gravity bombs in Europe - exceed reasonable defence needs, says NGO
More than two decades after the end of the Cold War, the United States and Russia are still burdened by costly nuclear weapons excess. Both countries possess strategic nuclear arsenals that are far larger than necessary to deter nuclear attack. Even after the 2010 New Treaty, they may each deploy 1,550 warheads each. No other nuclear-armed state has more than 300 warheads. American and Russian tactical nuclear arsenals - including 180 US nuclear gravity bombs in Europe - also exceed reasonable defence needs.
Just one US nuclear-armed submarine loaded with 24 missiles, each armed with four 455-kiloton warheads, could kill millions. As a 2012 Pentagon defence strategy paper notes: "It is possible that our deterrence goals can be achieved with a smaller nuclear force." Nevertheless, both countries are on the cusp of multi-billion dollar modernisation programmes of their strategic nuclear delivery systems - including new subs, bombers and ballistic missiles. This would perpetuate oversized force levels, as well as costly life extensions for nuclear warheads.
Current US Defence Department plans call for 12 new nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines to carry more than 1,000 strategic nuclear warheads into the 2070s, at a total cost of almost $350bn. The Air Force wants new fleet of nuclear-armed strategic bombers that would cost at least $68bn to build, as well as a new generation of land-based ballistic missiles. Modernisation and operation of the 450 Minuteman III land-based ballistic missiles would cost billions more. The direct cost of the US arsenal and its support infrastructure exceeds $31bn annually, according to independent estimates.
Meanwhile, Russia is pursuing its own, expensive ballistic missile modernisation programme to maintain pace with the US. If Moscow and Washington maintain excessive forces, it is more likely that China will increase the size and lethality of its strategic nuclear force. Rather than inducing others to build up, Russia and America should realise that it is in their security interest to accelerate the pace of planned reductions and reduce their stockpiles well below the ceilings set by the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.
And as the US Congress and the White House grapple with tough, far-reaching decisions about how to reduce the federal budget deficit in the years ahead, they must also find ways to scale back costly schemes for building a new generation of nuclear weapons. For example, by reducing the existing Ohio-class nuclear-armed sub fleet from 14 to eight or fewer boats and building no more than eight new nuclear-armed subs - the US could save $18bn more over 10 years and $120bn over the 50-year life span of the programme.
By revising Cold War-era prompt launch requirements and increasing the number of missile tubes and warhead loadings on each submarine, the Navy could still deploy the same number of strategic nuclear warheads as currently planned - about 1,000 - at sea on a smaller fleet of eight subs. America could also delay work on a new $55bn nuclear-armed strategic bomber fleet. There is no rush to field a fleet of new bombers given the Pentagon's plan to retain 60 of the existing nuclear-capable, long-range B-2 and B-52 bombers into the 2040s.
Delaying development of the new bomber would save $18 billion over the next decade. Another way to reduce nuclear excess would be to trim the land-based intercontinental ballistic missile force from 420 to 300 or fewer by cutting one squadron at each of the three Air Force bases where such missiles are deployed and forgoing a follow-on missile programme. This would save approximately $360m in annual operations and maintenance costs and billions more in future years.
The White House and Congress can also reduce the cost of the ambitious B61 nuclear warhead life extension programme. According to a new Pentagon audit, the cost of upgrading about 300 units of the tactical version and about 100 of the strategic version of the warhead is estimated to exceed $10.4bn. Earlier estimate put the cost at $7bn. Rather than refurbish the tactical version of the weapon, which is still deployed in Europe even though they are no longer relevant for the defence of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, Congress could save billions by directing the US weapons laboratories to focus on simply replacing the tritium and radar components for just the strategic version, known as the B61-7, which is based in America.
According to the 2011 NATO Deterrence and Defence Posture Review it is the US, British and French strategic forces that provide the ultimate guarantee of alliance security - not the tactical version of the B61 bomb stored in bunkers at air bases in Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey. It is also likely that any future agreement between Russia and the US to reduce the number of Russian tactical nuclear bombs in Europe would require that the American B61 tactical bombs be removed from Europe. In a time of budget austerity, the Pentagon's shopping list should not include nuclear weapons and weapons systems we cannot afford and do not need.
Daryl G. Kimball is the executive director of non-governmental organisation the Arms Control Association in Washington DC, in the United States. This article is based on a column published in the journal Arms Control Today