Budgeting for Bombs: The difficulties of getting nuclear modernisation through Congress

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On Monday 17th April, US Secretary of Defence James Mattis announced that the United States Nuclear Posture Review had officially begun and will be completed by the end of the year. This gives life to Trump’s presidential memorandum that mandated ‘a new Nuclear Posture Review to ensure that the United States nuclear deterrent is modern, robust, flexible, resilient, ready, and appropriately tailored to deter 21st-century threats and reassure our allies,’ and Trump’s pledge to make the US’ nuclear capacity ‘top of the pack’ as he undertakes one of the 'greatest military build-ups in American history.'

The review will be led by the Deputy Secretary of Defence, named as Boeing executive Patrick Shanahan, and the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff, General Paul Silva, as well as an interagency partner.

 

The need for Bipartisan and Interagency Support

How will the Trump Administration’s Review compare to Obama’s Nuclear Posture Review in 2010? It’s likely that the involvement of interagency partners and Congress will decide whether Trump’s Review succeeds. The 2010 Review was mandated by Congress, had interagency support, and was complemented by a bipartisan congressional commission that laid out a number of recommendations for the review process. This support allowed it to go beyond previous reviews that had focused primarily on force structure and nuclear weapons systems.

Obama’s Nuclear Posture Review was a bargain that succeeded in forging bipartisan agreement. The involvement of the State Department resulted in its emphasis on arms control and non-proliferation, and importantly the inclusion of negative security assurances, which stated that the US would never strike a non-nuclear state in compliance with the Non-Proliferation Treaty with nuclear weapons. Republican’s consented to such arms control and non-proliferation measures in return for the modernisation of the US nuclear posture. In other words, New START was traded for new nukes.

This interagency and bipartisan support appears to be lacking under the current administration.

First, the Trump Administration appears to be enthralled by the Pentagon, outsourcing foreign policy to the military. Trump has assembled the most military heavy administration in years, pledging to increase military spending by cutting the State Department, and placing former generals in key security positions. Trump’s quick recourse to the ‘Mother of all Bombs’ in Afghanistan, military posturing against North Korea, and use of cruise missiles in Syria do not bode well for the hope that future strategy will emphasise diplomatic and interagency solutions.

Second, bipartisan support for Trump’s nuclear policy appears to be lacking. The Markey-Lieu Bill introduced by Democrats seeks to prohibit the President from launching a first nuclear strike without a declaration of war by Congress. Similarly, eight other Democrat Senators have introduced a bill to cap spending on developing LRSO weapons, which are to be considered in the upcoming review.

 

Budgeting of Bombs

This lack of support is most problematic if Trump hopes to accelerate and expand the modernisation of the US nuclear arsenal. As Adam Mount has warned, a more partisan approach by Trump ‘will change the way nuclear modernisation is financed and threaten the political coalitions that have supported modernisation.’

Indeed, the burgeoning cost of modernisation have been laid bear by three reports published recently:

A Congressional Budget Report in February 2017 estimated that current nuclear modernisation will cost over $1 trillion over the next 30 years. The Pentagon have consistently declined to embrace this high figure officially, though recently, Deputy Chief of Staff for Strategic Deterrence and Nuclear Integration Lt. General Jack Weinstein admitted this was a fair estimate of the expected expenditure.

A Government Accountability Report from April 2017 has found that the National Nuclear Security Administration estimates for funding the modernisation and maintenance of the US’ nuclear warheads raised ‘affordability concerns.’ Many individual programmes were estimated to be at least $5 billion below identified needs over the next four years.

Finally, the Pentagon’s Office of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation last September projected the replacement of the US’s ICBMs to be $100 billion – 60% higher than the Department of Defences estimates last summer.

All this points towards a huge uphill struggle for the Trump administration, the first challenge of which is defense sequestration of the 2011 Budget Control Act. Because of this, Government has been operating under a Continuing Resolution, which locks funding levels in at the previous year’s numbers. Given the current polarity between Democrats and Republicans on nuclear modernisation, any changes will be extremely difficult, not least because Trump does not have the 60 votes needed in the Senate to overturn the Act.

Instead, the Pentagon are seeking ‘anomaly’ approval for 17 nuclear modernisation programmes, which would give the programmes special exemption from normal congressional procedure.

This struggle is already a reality, as negotiations over the Budget have been extended by a week because the lack of bipartisanship. In a stark warning to Trump, the Democrats have forced the exclusion of the Wall and protection of the Affordable Care Act in the upcoming Budget. Expressing his concern over the current standstill, General Selva bewailed ‘I don’t even care what size it is. Just give us a budget.’ Senator John McCain, going a step further, has threatened to shut down Government unless increased military spending was agreed.

One thing is certain, without bipartisan support and input into the nuclear posture review, it will be impossible for Trump to make America’s nukes great again.

Dispatches on the Washington Nuclear Front Line are published fortnightly. The last dispatch is available here: Struggling to Signal: Trump's Dilemma with Arms Control Diplomacy: 18th April 2017

About the author(s)...
  • Maxwell Downman, Impact and Fundraising Officer is tracking political and nuclear developments in Washington, specifically the current Nuclear Posture Review and its implications for Europe .
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