Nuclear budget cuts gaining momentum

Just months ago, nuclear weapons spending was considered untouchable. Now, rumblings from within the Pentagon indicate that the nuclear budget may be up next in the search for savings. When the Pentagon starts talking cuts, you know things are serious.

The most recent sign that the nuke budget is on the table came from Department of Defense Press Secretary George Little. "Our top priority is maintaining a nuclear deterrent, but the arsenal may not need to be as large as it is."

Little cautioned that the discussions are still “preliminary:” no specific savings have been identified. But the fate of the nuclear triad keeps coming up in conversations about budget savings.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta recently identified the ICBM leg of the triad as one of the potential casualties of the “doomsday” trigger that will cut about $600 billion from the defense budget if the super committee fails to reach a deal. And, this isn’t the first time a military leader has mentioned the triad in the context of budget constraints.

Admiral Mike Mullen raised the possibility of moving to a dyad back in September, in his last few weeks as Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

“The triad becomes very, very expensive, obviously, the smaller your nuclear arsenal is. So at some point in time in the future, certainly I think a decision will have to be made in terms of whether we keep the triad or drop it down to a dyad.

I didn't see us near that in this recent -- over the last couple of years, with respect to the New START. But I spent enough time to know, at some point, that is going to be the case.” 

Mullen isn’t the only military leader to say that budget constraints will lead to a reevaluation of the triad. Then JCS Vice Chairman Gen. James Cartwright put it bluntly: “The challenge here is that we have to recapitalize all three legs [of the nuclear triad], and we don’t have the money to do it.”

The current JCS Chair Gen. Martin Dempsey was more careful. “We've been studying and must continue to study the capability given to us by the triad,” Dempsey told the House Armed Services Committee.

Even STRATCOM chief Gen. Robert Kehler has chimed in, saying that while he continues “stand by the need for a triad, certainly in the near term,” that requirement could change.

“As we look into the strategic future, the answer about whether or not we’re going to need a triad, I think, is ‘it depends.’... [Can we] afford to spend the resources to modernize the entire triad? Those are not all questions for today.”

The recognition that nuclear spending is unsustainable coming from military leaders is a huge step. Yesterday, they said the nuclear weapons budget is untouchable. Today, they acknowledge that austere times may force nuclear cuts. Tomorrow, they may be welcome the chance to reorient our nuclear strategy to address 21st century security threats.

As Gen. John Adams, the former Deputy US Military Representative to NATO, wrote:

“This budget debate should not be viewed as a catastrophe for national security; rather, it represents an opportunity to seriously review our national security strategy.”

Looks like this thinking is starting to catch on inside the Pentagon.

Photo by the Department of Defense