The United States will need to spend as much as $18 billion per year for 15 years starting in 2021 to keep the nation's nuclear stockpile and the weapons and vehicles designed to deliver these weapons viable, Pentagon leaders told lawmakers.
"We've developed a plan to transition our aging system. Carrying out this plan will be an expensive proposition. It is projected to cost DoD an average of $18 billion a year from 2021 through 2035," Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work told members of the House Armed Services Committee at Thursday's hearing on nuclear deterrence.
"The only existential threat to our nation is a nuclear attack. Nuclear weapons remain the most important mission we have," he added.
Work explained that keeping the country's nuclear enterprise modernized is especially important in light of the advancements made by Russia and China.
The U.S. Navy and Air Force have already seen problems creep up with operations and morale within their nuclear forces. Both services faced cheating scandals in recent years. The Air Force's two top leaders were fired in 2008 after former Defense Secretary Robert Gates faulted the leaders for losing focus on the nuclear mission.
The Pentagon is already pursuing several acquisition efforts to boost the nuclear triad, but many have high price tags and the Air Force and Navy are trying to figure out how to pay for them under restricted budgets.
The Air Force plans to announce a contract this summer for its next-generation bomber program, called the Long Range Strike Bomber, or LRS-B. The Navy is working with Congress to secure funding for its Ohio Replacement Program, a new-generation of nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines slated to arrive by the early 2030s.
The new LRS-B planes are expected to cost about $550 million each and the Navy hopes it can keep the cost of its Ohio Replacement submarines for under $5 billion per boat. Many defense analysts have called those estimates ambitious after the services have had a record for going over budget in recent years on other big budget acquisition programs like the Joint Strike Fighter and the Ford-class aircraft carrier.
Congress has identified a new National Sea Based Deterrence fund designed to identify money to pay for the Ohio Replacement submarines, however most of the needed money for the fund has yet to be identified.
Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Conn., said Congress was working vigorously to identify money for the fund.
"We've created a mechanism within the budget process. We're ready and we're moving forward and we hope that the administration is going to help us solve this problem," he said.
Work said funding the Ohio Replacement Program was a critical priority, explaining that if it is paid for out of the existing shipbuilding budget – the funds needed will adversely impact other priority programs.
"This is our number one mission. We are going to pay for it (Ohio Replacement) no matter what. We appreciate the theory of the case behind this fund. There will have to be something like this to help us through," Work said.
Russian Saber Rattling
Work stressed that Russian, Chinese and North Korean nuclear weapons development continues to engender a dangerous and high-threat global environment.
"While we seek a world without nuclear weapons, we face the harsh reality that Russia and China are rapidly modernizing their already capable nuclear arsenals - and North Korea intends to develop nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them against the United States. A strong nuclear deterrent force will remain critical to our national security," Work said.
Citing the fact that senior Russian officials continue to make irresponsible statements about their nuclear forces, Work said the U.S. and NATO were not intimidated but rather strengthened in solidarity.
"As Secretary Carter has recently said, Moscow's nuclear saber-rattling raises questions about Russia's commitment to strategic stability -- and the profound respect that world leaders in the nuclear age have shown in the brandishing of these weapons," he added.
The Russian military is currently modernizing its arsenal of ICBMs and advancing its nuclear weapons' technologies, Work said.
Work stressed that Russia continues to violate the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, or INF agreement, reached between President Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in the late 1980s. The treaty is designed to eliminate nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with intermediate ranges identified as 500 to 5,500 kilometers.
"Russia continues to violate the INF treaty and our goal is to return them to compliance to preserve the viability of that treaty. We will not allow them to gain significant military advantage through INF violations," Work added.
Chinese nuclear modernization is also on the Pentagon's radar, Work explained. The Chinese are placing multiple warheads on their ICBMs, expanding their mobile ICBM force and continuing to pursue sea-based nuclear weapons.
"However, we assess that this modernization program (China) is designed to ensure they have a second strike capability and not to seek a quantitative nuclear parity with the United States or Russia," Work said.
When addressing the funding challenges expected to make the modernization of nuclear weapons a reality for DoD, Work said the stepped up effort would require about 7 percent of the Pentagon's annual budget.
"The choice right now is modernizing or losing deterrence. Without additional funding, sustaining this level of spending will require very, very hard choices that will impact the other parts of our defense portfolio," he explained.
HASC Chairman Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, said spending 7 percent of the Pentagon budget on its top security priority seems reasonable and appropriate.
"It seems to me that it is not unreasonable to say that it's in the ballpark," he said.
-- Kris Osborn can be reached at email@example.com