Obama proposes to boost spending for nuclear armaments

Warhead spending alone would grow faster than the overall military budget

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President Barack Obama visits the Supplemental Module Outfitting facility at Newport New Shipbuilding in Newport News, Va., in February of 2013. The facility supports the building of nuclear attack submarines.

Charles Dharapak/AP

The Obama administration has proposed to boost spending on the U.S. stockpile of nuclear warheads at a higher rate than for many other military programs, according to White House budget documents published February 2.

In its proposal for fiscal 2016, the White House calls for spending $8.85 billion for maintaining and rebuilding the nation’s nuclear warheads, an increase of more than eight percent over current levels, the documents state.

The Pentagon, meanwhile, is requesting a 4 percent increase over its overall 2015 spending of $560.3 billion, to reach $585.2 billion in 2016; this total includes both the “base” budget and a large, associated military account meant to finance overseas “contingency operations.”

The spending on warheads represents just a small part of a sweeping U.S. effort to completely rebuild the United States “triad” of nuclear forces — including long-range bombers, subs and missiles — over the next three decades. The Congressional Budget Office report last month estimated the cost of this ambitious project at $355 billion through 2023.

Frank Klotz, the head of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), the semi-autonomous agency that runs DOE’s nuclear programs, defended the spending Monday in a conference call with reporters, saying that the stockpile of U.S. nuclear warheads was the “smallest and oldest” that it has been since the Cold War and that the administration had a responsibility to refurbish them. “As long as we have this nuclear deterrent, it must remain effective,” he said.

The NNSA has shifted spending among some of its budget accounts since last year, making precise comparisons to earlier tallies difficult. But Klotz told reporters that besides the new spending for warheads, the current NNSA budget calls for a 3 percent increase in “core” nonproliferation programs, which are designed to reduce or eliminate nuclear materials and radiological threats.

NNSA deputy administrator for Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation Anne Harrington said the increase translated into about $40 million, but she declined to describe changes in nonproliferation spending in more detail.

According to the documents, the NNSA’s proposed $1.94 billion nonproliferation budget includes $426.7 million for global efforts to secure nuclear materials, including weapons uranium and plutonium. It also seeks $345 million, or 18 percent of the total nonproliferation budget, for continued work on the mixed-oxide or MOX nuclear fuel plant under construction at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, part of a joint-U.S. Russia effort to transform up to 34 tons each of their surplus weapons plutonium into reactor fuel.

A Department of Energy report last year concluded that the final cost of the overall U.S. MOX project would exceed $30 billion, considerably higher than initially expected. As a result, the White House last year sought a smaller appropriation – just $221 million -- to place the half-finished plant on “cold standby,” essentially mothballing it.

But a defense bill approved by Congress and signed by the president in December authorized a $345 million budget for the MOX project in fiscal 2015. Klotz told reporters the administration decided as a result to propose the same amount Congress had approved while it completes new Congressionally-mandated studies of potential MOX alternatives.

The Department of Defense’s overall $585 billion budget request, meanwhile, increases spending on several major modernization programs for nuclear weapons. The White House is asking for $1.25 billion for the strategic nuclear Long Range Strike Bomber project, up from $914 million this year.

The proposed budget would also increase spending for development of a replacement to aging Ohio class ballistic missile submarines by $116 million, to 1.4 billion this year. And it calls for spending $75.2 million on a program to modernize or replace the nation’s fleet of Minuteman III ICBMs, an increase of $68.3 million.

Arms control advocates call the ambitious program both bloated and wasteful, and based on an outdated view of the importance of nuclear weapons to U.S. security.

“It’s disappointing to see this administration has not put together a more cost effective, common sense approach” to modernizing the nuclear arsenal, said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association in Washington.

Arms control expert Kenneth Luongo, a former Department of Energy official and president of the Partnership for Global security, said Russia’s withdrawal from cooperation on most other nuclear nonproliferation, which ended formally in December, has left some U.S. programs stranded.

“The real problem is that this administration has not created any new nonproliferation programs and the old ones are dying,” Luongo said. “And that’s a huge challenge that they have not faced up to.”

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