Managing our nuclear arsenal has been a problem for a few of our military units recently, from a B-52 crew that took off without knowing that nukes were on board to Air Force and Navy teams that shortcut their arcane proficiency tests by cheating. The blowback was quick, and those units already are getting better.
Moving forward, our biggest challenge involves their Pentagon higher-ups who seem more focused on getting a free pass for nuclear budgets than on disciplined management of our nuclear strike programs.
Today, Air Force and Navy leaders are recommending the biggest nuclear weapons investment in decades, including a new fleet of ballistic missile submarines, a new class of bombers and major upgrades to the intercontinental ballistic missiles scattered across our great plains. Yet no one promoting these investments is fully committed to the idea that they deserve top priority. Or, to explain that in financial terms, they want to have these purchases but not to pay for them.
Secretary of the Air Force Deborah James – a Duke graduate – underscored the paradox recently. James oversees the bomber and intercontinental ballistic missile programs, and she started her State of the Air Force remarks this summer by naming the nuclear enterprise as “the No. 1 mission.” Typically an organization’s top priority will get first billing in the budget, but when pressed on this point, James backpedaled. “This is a national asset. So it’s not just an Air Force issue per se.” Her conclusion: “We do feel that additional monies could well be in order.”
It’s easy to read between these lines. If the Air Force were committed to nuclear investments as the top priority, the needed money would be going there. Instead, it is calling this the No. 1 mission and glancing around for outside accounts to pay for it.
In fairness, the Air Force is not alone in this contradiction. The Navy tried this first to pay for its ballistic missile submarine, and Congress recently has played along.
Federal budget limitations have created a need to set priorities and stick to them. Congress and the White House could allow the Air Force and the Navy to dodge the budgetary consequences of their nuclear priorities by moving the costs somewhere else, or our elected officials could call their hand by requiring them to pay for the priorities they’ve set.
Maybe the Air Force and Navy actually would back up this nuclear rhetoric. But the more likely outcome is that the services would finally acknowledge these purchases aren’t No. 1. Secretary James could easily decide, for instance, that the intercontinental ballistic missiles are less important than the new bombers, that some of new bombers should carry only regular munitions and that we need fewer of them.
The best way to make the Air Force and the Navy commit to their decisions is by holding the budget line and requiring they pay for their purchases. In reflection, they may find strategic and financial reasons why these programs aren’t really the top priority.
In strategic terms, we’re not short on nuclear firepower. The Air Force wants 80 to 100 aircraft in its new fleet of bombers, relative to the 19 Stealth B-2s and the 41 Cold War-era B-52s projected to be flying in the coming years. It simultaneously aims to do major upgrades on 400 intercontinental ballistic missiles. And, again at the same time, the Navy wants 12 new nuclear attack submarines that will carry 16 missiles each.
If James truly thinks adding all of this to this stockpile is the No. 1 mission, we must not have many urgent priorities, and the world must be a much safer place than we’ve been led to believe.
In budget terms, these programs are staggeringly expensive. Last December, the Congressional Budget Office projected that the Air Force’s 10-year research and procurement costs would be $17 billion related to bombers and $9 billion related to intercontinental ballistic missiles. The Air Force could cover this tab within the boundaries of its normal acquisition budget – Congress funds these accounts by the tens of billions annually – but it absolutely would have to make way by cutting other programs that it also calls top priority.
That’s the real test of importance. If something is truly necessary, other things will go in order to have it. Yet James, along with her colleagues in the Navy, belie their urgent rhetoric by not backing it up in the budget.
Loopholes aren’t the answer to this problem. We’ll learn a lot about exactly how much the U.S. needs a total upgrade of our nuclear strike hardware by seeing whether the Air Force and Navy are willing to pay for it.
Matthew Leatherman is a resident fellow at the International Affairs Council of North Carolina. The views here are his alone.