Obama Administration's Stockpile Stewardship Management Plan Details Stockpile Cuts, Infrastructure Investments

Jul 14, 2010

By Oliver Bloom

 

The Federation of American Scientists (FAS) and Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) have published the twounclassified portions (Annex A – FY 2011 Stockpile Stewardship Plan and Annex D – FY 2011 – The Biennial Plan and Budget Assessment on the Modernization and Refurbishment of the Nuclear Security Complex), as well at the plan’s summary section, of the Obama Administration’s FY 2011 Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan (SSMP). Taken together, the three documents are more than 350 pages long, and provide detailed insight into the Obama Administration’s twin disarmament and deterrence objectives.  The unclassified sections, written by the National Nuclear Security Administration, detail, as the Federation of American Scientists describe in their press release, that
 
the Obama administration is planning to cut the U.S. nuclear arsenal by as much as 40 percent by 2021, but also wants to spend nearly $175 billion over the next twenty years to build new facilities and to maintain and modify thousands of weapons.
 
The SSMP draws heavily off the conclusions of the 2010 Nuclear Posture and Quadrennial Defense Review, especially on issues related to nuclear stockpile size and composition. The SSMP
 
reaffirms the necessity for the nuclear deterrent to be sustained without underground nuclear testing, without the production of new fissile materials, and without development of new nuclear military capabilities
 
and
will evolve its stockpile life extension plans to reflect the NPR requirements. Simultaneously, the existing stockpile will be continually assessed and sustained and retired weapons will be dismantled.
 
The SSMP summary describes five priorities for the NNSA:
 
(1)Sustain and refurbish the nuclear stockpile without a need for nuclear tests and in alignment with the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review.
 
(2) Maintain a vigorous ST&E foundation upon which the stockpile and our national security rests, with particular emphasis on the human talent that underpins all endeavors.
 
(3) Right-size and modernize the infrastructure of the nuclear weapons complex.
 
(4)Contribute to broader national security needs, including nonproliferation, counterterrorism, and the mitigation of global threats. 
 
(5)Enhance governance and business practice efficiencies to reduce costs.
 
On the production and development of warheads, the SSMP goes into fairly great detail about U.S. plans, which while falling short of the development of new warheads, are certainly more elaborate than some disarmament advocates might like. As the FAS explains
 
the plan describes nuclear warhead modifications planned as part of the life-extension process, including “vastly improved capabilities for next system arming, fuzing and firing and/or radar componentry.” The arming, fuzing and firing components initiate the detonation of the warhead, and improved capabilities likely would include new security mechanisms to prevent an unauthorized user from detonating the warhead. Radar components are used to detonate the warhead at a specified altitude, and modifications can lead to a weapon with new military capabilities. All warheads also will receive modified safety features, which ensure that plutonium is not dispersed and the warhead does not detonate in the event of an accident.
 
And on testing, while the SSMP continues with current plans for no resumption of testing, it plans new methods to maintain the United States’ ability to resume testing should it feel the need. As the FAS adds
 
the plan indicates that the United States will adopt a different approach to maintaining its ability to resume nuclear testing if the need arises. Since the United States stopped explosive nuclear testing in 1992, it has maintained its existing testing infrastructure so it could resume testing within a specified amount of time, which has varied from 24 to 36 months. The plan refers to test-readiness investments as “outdated” and states that if the need for explosive testing arose, such tests would instead rely on “modern capabilities.” More generally, the plan states that the intellectual and physical capacity to resume testing will be maintained through NNSA’s ongoing work. This new approach would leave the United States with an inherent ability to resume testing within the specified time frame, but would no longer rely on maintaining existing equipment at the test sites.
 
On specific numbers, Hans Kristensen from the Federation of American Scientists explains in his detailed analysis of the plan, that the
 
plan shows that the United States intends to reduce the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile by 30 to 40 percent from today’s total of approximately 5,000 weapons to 3,000-3,500 weapons at least by 2022.
 
Initiatives already underway from the previous administration are currently reducing the arsenal to some 4,700 weapons by the end of 2012, and the Obama administration’s Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) released in April will likely result in additional reserve weapons being retired.
 
Annex D of the plan describes how
 
with good planning, the future NNSA infrastructure will support total stockpiles up to a range of approximately 3,000 to 3,500 active, logistic spare, and reserve warheads. However, the anticipated future NNSA infrastructure is not designed to have the capacity to support a return to historical Cold War stockpiles, or rapidly respond to large production spikes.
 
However, in the Union of Concerned Scientists’ press release, Nickolas Roth, an analyst with the UCS’s Global Security Program, expressed reservations with the retention of a large weapons complex, explaining that    
 
This could be a problem for deeper reductions that are needed since it would be possible for the United States to rapidly rebuild.
 
In spite of the sizeable reductions in arsenal size, Kristensen explains that
 
to support the stockpile, the NNSA intends to spend more than $175 billion (in then-year dollars) over the next two decades on building new nuclear weapons factories, testing and simulation facilities, and modernizing and extending the life of the nuclear weapons in the stockpile.
 
The NNSA plans to spend approximately $10 billion between 2010 and 2025 on the B61 gravity bomb, the W76 warhead (deployed on submarines), and the W78 warhead (deployed on ICBMs). The plan estimates further costs in 2017 and beyond as other warheads in the stockpile are modernized (the W88, W80-1 and B61-11/B83-1). 
 
Kristensen is quick to note that
 
the plan does not include the more than $100 billion the Department of Defense is expected to spend in 2010-2030 on the platforms needed to deliver the warheads. This includes a new class of ballistic missile submarines (estimated at $80 billion-plus), a new long-range bomber (presumably with a new cruise missile), and a new tactical fighter-bomber. (See latest Nuclear Notebook on US forces.)
 
Thus, the significant investments are only part of the story. Much will depend on DoD plans for future delivery platforms and systems. But if current estimates and historical patterns hold (and the United States maintains a triad deterrent), it would not be surprising for the SSMP’s estimate of $175 billion over two decades to double when one also includes the costs of new delivery platforms. 
 
What’s more, Kristensen notes that
 
one of the more interesting parts of the plan is NNSA’s claim that even a much smaller nuclear weapons stockpile “would not lead to a smaller, less costly infrastructure” than the one proposed.
 
In the words of the NNSA,
 
smaller total stockpiles than prescribed by post-NPR implementation strategies would not lead to a smaller, less costly infrastructure
 
reflecting
 
the reality that the costs to maintain capabilities necessary to support the stockpile are essentially independent of the size of the stockpile. Once the number of warheads falls below a specific level, the costs just to maintain the required capabilities dominate. This is because most facilities, operations, and critical skills must exist, be maintained, and be exercised to remain viable.
 
A graph within the report reiterates this point, showing that the “capability-based infrastructure size and cost” would be largely the same for the U.S. arsenal, regardless of whether there were 5,000 warheads in the stockpile of 500. Kristensen expresses some skepticism with this claim, explaining
 
It is not uncommon to hear claims that proposed funding is the absolute minimum possible, but this claim will demand a lot of scrutiny in the months and years ahead. It implies that today’s complex maintaining 5,000 weapons would be about the same size and cost as the complex needed to maintain 8,000 weapons, which of course is not the case.
 
In the FAS press release, he added
 
that calculation makes no sense….It is like saying that today’s stockpile of about 5,000 weapons requires a complex of nearly the same size and cost as when the stockpile had 8,000 warheads. Given the size of the federal deficit, the Obama administration needs to think more clearly about how it spends the taxpayers’ money.”
 
Only the future will show whether further cost reductions are possible as stockpile size declines, but at least insofar as what the nuclear establishment in the United States thinks it needs, the $175 billion is indicative of historical underinvestment in the enterprise and is necessary to maintain the residual infrastructure and human capital.  Nuclear weapons are apparently an economy of scale, a fact that is great when producing ever larger quantities of weapons, but a fact that is less rewarding when one is thinking of shrinking stockpile size. 
 
Overall, the SSMP seems consistent with President Obama’s aim to further reductions in the size of the U.S. arsenal. At the same time, it seems indicative of the Administration’s calculated efforts to win bipartisan support for further reductions by substantially increasing funding for the nuclear infrastructure. One only has to look at Senator Kyl’s Wall Street Journal op-ed from last week to see how important further funding is for gaining Republican support for New START.   While disarmament advocates like Hans Kristensen certainly recognize this point, they also note that
 
the massive investments to build weapons factories and modify warheads also raise questions about how the plan will be seen by the international community that is needed to support the Obama administration’s nonproliferation agenda. How will other nuclear weapon states interpret the plan and U.S. intensions, given that they need to be convinced to reduce, stop producing, and ultimately eliminate nuclear weapons to make nuclear reductions and eventually disarmament a reality?
 
The Obama Administration is caught in a pickle—on the one hand, disarmament is in line with its international obligations and its attempts to halt further proliferation. But on the other hand, President Obama can only gain the necessary domestic political support for the disarmament agenda through significant investments in the nuclear enterprise, investments that may undermine the believability of the United States’ commitment to disarmament.
 
As Kristensen adds
 
striking a balance between disarmament and deterrence – a balance that conveys an clear transition towards disarmament – will be delicate and the administration must work to ensure that the goodwill of Prague is not undercut by nuclear modernizations.
 
With the various heads of the national laboratories speaking before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee tomorrow on New START, we will gain further insight into how the Obama Administration plans on balancing deterrence and disarmament, especially when it needs to win further Republican support for its nuclear agenda. We shall see if skeptics view the $175 billion as sufficient investment to compensate for reductions in arsenal size.