The Obama Administration’s budget and nuclear weapons

Today, the Obama Administration will roll out the FY2013 federal budget and nuclear weapons watchers will be scanning through the details of the financial plans released for the Departments of Defense and Energy.

The Defense Department has already hosted a number of press briefings and released two papers: one that sketched out “new” strategic priorities for defense, and the other more focused on the key budget decisions that are being made under more austere conditions. President Barack Obama led the first of the Pentagon press briefings in early January, an unusual move that indicates he and other military leaders are nervous about the pressures their proposed budget will face in Congress, especially in an election year.

During his speech, the President vowed to “continue to get rid of outdated Cold War-era systems.” Yet Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter made clear that the FY2013 budget will make no new cuts to nuclear forces. Although the details and fine print should be checked after the budget is released, the most significant announcement on nuclear forces during the briefings was the two-year delay in the program for the next generation of nuclear weapons submarines– a program which was originally projected to eventually consume over half of the Navy’s shipbuilding funds. The Defense Department had already tasked the Navy and Strategic Command with trying to further reduce the costs of the submarines, and they are also due to report to Congress on a range of options while belt-tightening, by the end of June.

As for the semiautonomous arm of the DOE that is responsible for nuclear warheads, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), the President continues to be under pressure for promises that he made to Congress during the time of the New START deal that he would invest over billion in the country’s nuclear weapons complex over ten years.

One warhead to watch is the B-61, for which NNSA had planned the most ambitious and complex Life Extension Program ever at billion. Congress recently warned the NNSA that it must report back with evidence that it has better plans to avoid serious complications before it can continue on with full funding. About 200 of these B-61s are assigned to the tactical aircraft based in NATO Europe. Questions have been mounting about the utility of this mission that was born in the early 1960s when allies were focused on repelling a Soviet land invasion of Europe. Spending large sums of money on these bombs almost a quarter century after the end of the Cold War may be further questioned given the Pentagon’s affirmations in favor of emphasizing agile forces, and a strategic focus continuing to shift more toward Asia and the Pacific.

Although Pentagon officials did indicate during the press briefings and the Defense documents that they believe they can meet “deterrence goals” with a “smaller nuclear force”, this aspiration is still wrapped up in the ongoing nuclear guidance review. Despite talk about big changes, it seems they may need to wait, leaving the Administration spending precious scarce resources on a Cold War approach to nuclear weapons in this budget.
The author’s views are her own.

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