The Trump Defense Department will continue and expand the nuclear modernization plan begun under President Obama, according to a leaked draft of the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review first reported on by The Huffington Post. A look under the hood of nuclear modernization reveals an extraordinarily excessive and expensive effort, the justifications for which seem to be heavily drawn from reports funded by companies with a vested financial interest in an expansive modernization plan.
The underlying message of the Review is generally the same as that of the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review under President Obama: the United States is committed to a robust stockpile of nuclear weapons that will deter potential adversaries and assure allies. But there is a marked difference in approach and rhetoric in President Trump’s review, and some of the language and changes track recommendations made in two recent reports created by organizations with ties to entities that could stand to financially gain from the implementation of their recommendations.
In 2015 the Center for Strategic and International Studies released a report called Project Atom, which advocated for a new “suite of low-yield, special-effects warheads.” The Center’s national security program area, which houses the Project on Nuclear Issues, receives funding from the U.S. government and from several big-name defense contractors, including the Lockheed Martin Corporation, Bechtel Corporation, and the Northrop Grumman Corporation, that would all be working on multi-billion dollar modernization projects.
In 2017 the National Institute for Public Policy published A New Nuclear Review for a New Age, which echoed the Center’s recommendations for considering the development of a low-yield nuclear weapon, and further pressed the importance of a flexible and reliable nuclear force.
“In the contemporary, highly-dynamic threat environment, however, flexible and adaptable deterrence strategies will likely be necessary to succeed against the myriad of known and plausible threats confronting the United States,” the report states.
One of the contributing authors to the Institute’s report is the director of the Center for Global Security Research at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, and one of the senior reviewers was a former director of the Lab. Lawrence Livermore Laboratory is one of three national labs managed by the NNSA. The modernization plan would mean an increase in work, and therefore funding, for the Lab, thus giving at least the appearance of a conflict of interest in the analysis and recommendations. Other reviewers and authors include former and current Defense Department executives.
President Trump’s Nuclear Posture Review uses a similar narrative and language found in these reports to justify the development of a new warhead. The Review repeatedly states that there can be no “one-size-fits-all” strategy for deterring all adversaries or assuring all allies and that the nuclear force must be flexible and adaptable.
“The United States has understood the value of flexibility for nuclear deterrence for six decades, but its importance is now magnified by the emerging diversity of nuclear and non-nuclear strategic threats and the dynamism and uncertainties of the security environment,” the Review states.
In order to meet this goal in a dynamic and uncertain threat environment, the Department will pursue development of new “low-yield” nuclear weapons that could be tailored to a specific situation.
This is a significant addition to an already questionable modernization plan. The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that the modernization plan will cost a total of $1.2 trillion over the next 30 years. The lion’s share of that cost, $890 billion, will be for the new and updated delivery systems, including fleets of new submarines and bombers to carry nuclear warheads, which will be developed by the Defense Department. The remaining $352 billion will be allocated to the Energy Department’s warhead manufacturing and infrastructure upgrades.
The $1.2 trillion estimate is only for the modernization plan already begun under President Obama. The 2018 Nuclear Posture Review does not contain any specific information on how much it will add to the cost to include the development of new low-yield warheads or how doing so will affect current projects and schedules. Neither does the Review address the fact that, technically, there are currently over 1,000 low-yield nuclear weapons in the stockpile—each equivalent to the bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It remains unclear why we would need to develop new ones.
And the Review fails to address the fact that one of the warheads in the arsenal, the B61, has already begun a costly life extension program that will give it a “dial-a-yield” capability. The new B61-12 will consolidate several versions of the warhead class into one, versatile bomb. It will be deliverable by either short-range fighter planes or long-range bombers and will have four different, selectable yields. The life extension program for this one bomb could exceed the Pentagon’s estimated $10 billion budget and will additionally include a $1.3 billion tail kit that will improve the bomb’s accuracy. These upgrades will make it one of the most lethal, and adaptable, nuclear weapons ever created without a single change made to the nuclear explosive package itself.
Most experts agree: the United States must have a safe, secure, and strong nuclear arsenal for national defense, and there’s no question that parts of that arsenal and the nuclear complex itself must be updated. But there is a great deal of debate surrounding how much of the nuclear modernization plan is actually necessary, even without the latest Review’s call for new warhead development.
When recommendations are made to spend billions of taxpayer dollars in the name of national security, it’s important to look at exactly where those recommendations are coming from. In the case of both Project Atom and A New Nuclear Review for a New Age the research and writing of the reports were supported by entities with a lot to gain from an expansive modernization plan, which is exactly what both reports recommended. Similarly, the Nuclear Posture Review is a document produced by the Defense Department, which would also see an increase in funding and work from an expanded plan. Congress should authorize a truly independent review of nuclear modernization before appropriating any additional funds.