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Informal press background, associated views, January 5, 2012
Contact: Greg Mello, office 505-265-1200, cell 505-577-8563

Administration Hints at Smaller Nuclear Force Amid Wider Defense Cutbacks

Today President Obama and the Department of Defense (DoD) released a broad overview of the Administration's strategic and budget priorities, entitled "Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities For 21st Century Defense" (pdf). 

As New York Times reporters Elizabeth Bumiller and Thom Shanker put it, "[t]he new military strategy is driven by at least $450 billion in Pentagon budget cuts over the next decade. An additional $500 billion in cuts could be ordered if Congress follows through on plans for deeper reductions."

Leaving aside further discussion of context, the overview states (p. 5):

It is possible that our deterrence goals can be achieved with a smaller nuclear force, which would reduce the number of nuclear weapons in our inventory as well as their role in U.S. national security strategy.
Current expenses for nuclear weapons occur in both DoD and the Department of Energy (DOE), in the latter case in the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), specifically in its "Weapons Activities" budget line.  In the present fiscal year (FY2012) Weapons Activities comprises as always well over half -- $7.23 billion, plus about $269 million in pro-rata administrative expenses -- of NNSA's total appropriation ($11.00 billion).  (For references see links in our December 16, 2011 press release.)

In the recent past, the Obama Administration has proposed increases in NNSA nuclear weapons spending that rival the largest in U.S. history and exceed all precedent at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) in particular.  (Obama Requests Nuclear Weapons Spending Surge, LASG press release, Feb 1, 2010; Huge "emergency" funding increase for nuke labs today, LASG press release, Oct 1, 2010).

The most recent update of those plans is the NNSA/DOE FY 2012 Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan, April 15, 2011 (pdf 6.2MB) (courtesy of Federation of American Scientists), which sets out spend a total of $88 billion in the Weapons Activities in the decade-long FY2012 to FY2021 period, an average of $8.8 billion per year.  (See Table 6, p. 67, in that Plan.)

Now follow a few of our perspectives on this big subject, in a very hurried form.

On the basis of more than two decades of analysis, we believe this level of Weapons Activities expenditures to support "U.S. deterrent goals" is grossly excessive for today's nuclear stockpile or any smaller one.  We have written about this extensively through the years, such as in this line by line analysis (Potential Savings from Reform of DOE Nuclear Weapons Stewardship and from Nuclear Stockpile Reductions, Peace Economics, Peace Science and Public Policy, Vol. 5, Issue 2, Article 2, Spring 1999, pdf) and its summary in a National Academy publication ("The Stockpile Stewardship Charade," Issues in Science and Technology, archived here).  We believe these analyses are valuable in today's context because they help explain the impetus for, and provide a midpoint snapshot of, the huge funding increases that occurred in Weapons Activities from 1995 to 2004, which has led to today's "normal" at NNSA and its laboratories, which were especially enriched during this period.  (For graphical history of Weapons Activities spending since 1948, see slide 20 here, pdf; for the resulting effect at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) through 2004 only, and including all sources of LANL income, see slide 21 in the same place.)

Those 1999 articles make the case for a Weapons Activities budget line of $2.03 billion in 1999 dollars, which would be $2.76 billion in today's dollars, inflated by CPI.  We still think NNSA, were it well managed and lean, could maintain today's arsenal for about half what it is currently spending.  With the greater entrenchment of management problems since the creation of NNSA in 1999, however, it would not be possible to get to that "lean" management, similar to commercial high-hazard operations, in any straightforward manner that would avoid management collapse.

In many ways the proposed Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility (CMRR-NF) is an example of the latest and most rococo phase of this wasteful pattern, which we believe damages NNSA as well as the federal fisc.

We see three main categories of cuts in NNSA Weapons Activities:

a) cuts in pure waste and "puffery" (House Strategic Forces Subcommittee Chairman's Michael Turner's word, who says there isn't any in this context);

b) cuts related to trimming ambitions for novelty in designs (e.g. attempts to provide even greater and more intrinsic warhead security, primarily to protect against the "insider threat," or changing military characteristics to tailor warheads to new delivery systems, or producing what amount to new warhead designs for the W78, W88, and W80-1 warheads); and

c) cuts due to the elimination of types of warheads (e.g. nuclear cruise missile warheads) or reductions in warhead numbers, which are related to cuts in nuclear delivery systems or to changes in policies regarding the undeployed "war reserve" or "hedge" arsenal.

Examples of some possible cuts would include (grossly-approximate figures only, in decade-long totals):
  • $5 B – CMRR-NF
  • $5 B – LEP reform
  • $10 B – Eliminate redundancy, waste at the two physics labs
  • $2 B – Slow down and downscale Uranium Processing Facility (UPF)
  • $2 B – Elimination, downscaling, slowdown of other unneeded or less urgent projects, contract, fees, and pension reform
One way to begin such cuts from today's degraded position of low objectivity and transparency would be to compel NNSA to produce Future Years National Security Plans (FYNSPs) and Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plans (SSMPs) that cut spending by substantial amounts in each subsequent year, no less than 10% per year from the previous year's level.  This pace of decrease would allow the institutions to evolve without (further) fiascoes, assuming effective management.

Cuts at warhead complex sites could be sweetened in part by offering early retirement to selected classes of workers, along with subsidies for work in renewable energy (RE) and energy efficiency (EE) businesses.  That is, a fraction of what cuts might otherwise be proposed could be used in community transition, assisting investment in RE and EE.  In any case, we need not worry about a nuclear weapon scientist "trail of tears."  Our society cannot afford to waste billions of dollars which ought to be invested elsewhere, tears or not.

The FY2012 Defense Authorization Act (report, pdf), requires at (Section 3123, pp. 1028ff), NNSA to search for redundancies and waste in the nuclear warhead complex, which helps set the stage for a national dialogue on these issues.

A number of parties have pointed out that major financial savings could be achieved by trimming expenses for the nuclear arsenal in DoD and NNSA, especially because the very expensive delivery systems involved are, in the case of long-range bombers, submarines, and cruise missiles, nearing the end of their useful service lives.  It is a virtual certainty that the number of delivery vehicles will shrink, which would save tens of billions of dollars over the next decade alone.  For example, USA Today reports today that the Arms Control Association is calling for $45 billion in cuts in delivery system expenditures over the coming decade, by producing fewer submarines and delaying nuclear-capable bomber aircraft.

Such welcome proposals are only the beginning of what is possible.  Certainly NNSA's programs, especially the highly-redundant work at the two physics laboratories, can also be substantially cut.


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