Great Britain's cuts, particularly to its nuclear forces, are the canary in the defense budget mine. Just as massive deficits forced the conservative UK government to cut deep into its military programs, the United States will soon have to choose: update its force structure or cling to obsolete Cold War posture?
The UK may have waited too long to make the cuts. It is now forced to cut military personnel by 10 percent, and scrap an aircraft carrier and the entire fleet of Harrier jump jets (a very versatile, though very dangerous, fighter jet in which I once flew).
Less controversial is the plan to delay a decision on building a new generation of nuclear-armed submarines to replace the four existing Trident subs, each armed with 16 missiles carrying a total of 48 hydrogen bombs per sub.
Former Prime Minister Tony Blair decided to replace the fleet with new subs. But the cost -- 28 billion pounds (or 44 billion U.S. dollars) -- has made this a very unpopular decision. The British delay in deciding the fate of the Trident replacement may just delay the inevitable cancelation of the program. Paul Ingram, executive director of the British American Security Information Council, says the new nuclear sub would "be easily the most expensive defense procurement project for the decade from 2015/6, sucking the finances out of other major projects."
U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is going through his own budget pain, now choosing which weapons to cut in an effort to save some $100 billion over the next five years. The Pentagon budget has doubled since 2001, rising an average of seven percent a year. This budget growth is expected to slow to only 1 percent in the near future, and even that may be unsupportable. Something's got to give. To preserve vital conventional military forces, the service chiefs will likely have to cut into the $54 billion spent each year on nuclear weapons-related programs.
The Navy currently has 14 Ohio class ballistic missile submarines. Each boat can carry 24 missiles with four nuclear warheads each -- up to 1344 nuclear bombs carried by the entire fleet. Over the next 30 years, the Navy plans to buy 12 new subs, starting in 2019. In 2007, the Navy estimated that each sub would cost about $4 billion a piece. Now, the costs have skyrocket to over $7 billion each. The Navy says that the first sub of twelve would cost $9 billion -- with a total program cost of $86 billion. But that may be low-balling it. According to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, the total sub replacement program would run to $99 billion with another $15 billion in research and development.
But will we need hundreds of sub-based nuclear missiles in 2040? If we need fewer, do we need to design a new sub? If we do, can't we find a design that costs less than $7 billion each?
Gates would do well to learn from the British budget disaster: Delay a decision on a new U.S. nuclear sub until we know if this sub is really necessary. Preserve the weapons we truly need by letting go of the weapons we don't.