When the Nuclear Budget Binge Ended

Washington is slowly moving toward tightening budgets and being smarter with its security dollars. The President’s budget request, released yesterday, showed that spending smarter means trimming excessive spending on Cold War-era nuclear weapons systems.

The nuclear budget is still larger than necessary. It emphasizes investment in modernizing all three legs of the nuclear triad. The budget also seeks approximately $7.5 billion dollars for nuclear weapons activities to sustain warheads in the stockpile. To be sure, several wasteful or excessive (pdf) nuclear programs fared well in this year’s budget request.

However, two items in the President’s FY13 budget request signal where things are headed.

CMRR got zeroed out. Los Alamos’ proposed $4 to $6 billion plutonium facility, the Chemistry Metallurgy Research Replacement – Nuclear Facility (CMRR), was pitched as the way to sustain the U.S. nuclear arsenal. In real terms, it would have supported a four-fold increase in the United States’ ability to produce plutonium pits – to sustain existing weapons or increase the arsenal size.

The President’s budget request effectively cancels those plans. This is in part due to soaring costs – increasing from an original $375 million to an estimated $6 billion. Moreover, as analysts at the Union of Concerned Scientists point out, there is no clear need for the CMRR as proposed. The National Nuclear Security Administration now agrees, concluding “that existing infrastructure in the nuclear complex has the inherent capacity to provide adequate support” for CMRR’s missions.

The cut saves $1.8 billion over the next five years.

Ohio-class replacement submarine got delayed. The Navy plans to purchase 12 new nuclear-armed submarines to replace the current fleet – costing $350 billion over the lifetime of the program. The first submarines – always the most expensive to produce – were planned to be purchased within the next ten years.

The President’s strategic guidance, and subsequent budget request, call for a 2-year delay in the sub program. In large part, this allows the administration to finish an ongoing nuclear policy review that will determine how many submarines the U.S. needs to purchase. Experts suggest the U.S. can meet its needs with 8 subs or fewer. By delaying expenses, it also helps the Pentagon meet near-term goals for reduced spending.

The delay is expected to trim $4.3 billion (pdf) from previous plans through FY2017.

These cuts signal that nuclear weapons programs will be responsible for meeting national security needs at acceptable costs. Where it gets interesting is that our national security requirements and fiscal constraints are in flux. The Pentagon recognizes that the U.S. can meet its deterrence requirements with a smaller nuclear arsenal – something the President’s nuclear policy guidance review is likely to formalize. Meanwhile, Washington is seeking ways to demonstrate fiscal restraint and pay down the national debt.

In these circumstances, wasteful programs or those in excess of our security needs will face budget cuts. The CMRR was the first to meet such a fate. The delay on the submarine will likely provide time to right-size the program and escape the budget knives.

The lesson for other nuclear weapons programs is clear. The nuclear budget binge is over