As we speed toward the so-called fiscal cliff, we are confronted by dire warnings. A Thelma-and-Louise style plunge will drag the country back into recession, inflict terrible hardship on the less fortunate, and decimate our military might.
Well, perhaps. But here's a little good news: we'll still be able to nuke the bejesus out of the Russians.
About a year ago, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta sent around a "heartburn" letter warning of the dire implications of across-the-board budget cuts mandated by the Budget Control Act. Panetta outlined the cuts that might occur under the process commonly referred to as sequestration. This was, in part, an exercise in panic-mongering to generate political will to avoid sequestration.
In case you need a refresher, the United States maintains a stockpile of about 5,000 nuclear weapons, about half of which are backups for the deployed force. Under the New START treaty, the United States will field up to 420 ICBMs with one warhead each, 14 submarines carrying up to 240 SLBMs with four or five warheads apiece, and up to 60 nuclear-capable bombers. That will work out to 1,550 deployed "strategic" warheads, although the real number will be higher because of the way the treaty counts warheads on bombers. The United States also has a few hundred "tactical" nuclear weapons -- gravity bombs for use by U.S. and NATO fighter aircraft.
This is a lot of nuclear firepower. The U.S. nuclear stockpile was designed to be resilient in the face of unexpected technical failures and geopolitical surprises. No one planned on the catastrophic scenario being self-inflicted, but it works against that, too. Even if we apply worst-case sequestration cuts, the force looks surprisingly healthy. Here is Panetta's list of "devastating" cuts, along with the savings, in billions, over 10 years:
- Terminate Joint Strike Fighter; minimal life extensions and upgrades to existing forces ($80B);
- Terminate bomber; restart new program in mid 2020s ($18B);
- Delay next generation ballistic missile submarine; cut force to 10 subs ($7B);
- Eliminate ICBM leg of Triad ($8B).
The first fact that should be obvious is that much of the savings comes from simply deferring modernization of some systems. Really, the only near-term pain comes from eliminating the ICBM leg of the triad. In the other cases -- terminating the JSF, delaying a new bomber, and delaying the replacement ballistic missile submarine -- the consequences will not be felt for years. (The current fleet of subs will begin to age out at a rate of about one per year starting in 2027. The aircraft should remain viable through the 2020s, with the Air Force planning on retaining some B-52s through 2035. 2035!)
Now, let's be clear. It takes a long time to build replacement systems, so delays now may lock in gaps that will appear later. And maintaining old systems too long can be a penny-wise, pound-foolish approach as maintenance costs rise. But it is hard to make the case that the resulting sequestration deterrent would, in the near term, "presage the end of democratic Western Europe" or some such nonsense.
The bulk of the deterrent would be based on 10 submarines, each with 24 missiles. Those missiles can carry up to 12 warheads each, but we needn't be so aggressive. An average of six would do, resulting in a sea-based force of approximately 1,440 nuclear weapons deployed on submarines, a few hundred of which might be at sea at any given time. The United States would also have, for flexibility, 18 B-2s capable of carrying up to 16 gravity bombs (B83s and B61 Mod 11s) and some number of B-52s capable of carrying up to eight gravity bombs or 20 nuclear-armed cruise missiles.
Suck that, Vladimir Putin.