Chuck Hagel's Nuclear Disaster

Your job is done, fellas.

Photographer: Michael Smith/Getty Images

The shenanigans that have been going on at U.S. nuclear bases are almost too clownish to believe: officers running a drug ring across six facilities, widespread cheating on monthly proficiency tests, blast doors on missile silos too rusty to properly seal, six nuclear-armed missiles accidentally loaded onto a plane that then flew across the country, and a curious story of crews at three bases FedExing one another an apparently magical wrench used to connect warheads to intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Given such blatant management problems, it's also hard to swallow the $1.5 billion funding demand for the program from Chuck Hagel, who is expected to step down as defense secretary today. Rather than pad budgets, the defense secretary should bring the nuclear program up to snuff, in part by scaling it down to best meet the security needs the U.S. faces today.

The principal strategy behind the existing nuclear program is deterrence. But what makes for effective deterrence has changed since the end of the Cold War. No longer does it make sense to keep an enormous arsenal of intercontinental ballistic missiles, with their powerful warheads capable of blowing up cities. The chances that the U.S. would ever use these doomsday weapons are so negligible that it has little deterrent effect on such threats as a nuclear-armed Iran or North Korea, or even a resurgent Russian superpower. Smaller "tactical" weapons, such as a plane-carried bomb with a variable-yield warhead (it can be "dialed down" to a small blast size), are not just better suited to taking out an enemy nuclear-weapon delivery system, but they also are a far more believable threat, because they would cause far less collateral damage than an ICBM.  

So rather than repair every one of those rusty silo doors and spend billions to maintain 450 nuclear-armed land-based missiles, as Hagel has proposed, the Pentagon should scale back to fewer than 100. And instead of developing a new generation of ICBMs, it should focus on extending the life of the current Minuteman III missiles.

The other two legs of the U.S. nuclear triad -- air- and sea-based weapons -- don't require such radical cuts. But the existing fleet of 14 Ohio-class submarines, each capable of carrying 24 Trident II missiles, could be pared by two or three without sacrificing capability. The Navy should also consider scaling back its request for 12 next-generation subs, expected to cost a cumulative $100 billion.

The Pentagon could also save money by slowing development of the Long-Range Strike Bomber, meant to replace the B-2 stealth craft sometime in the 2020s at a potential cost of more than $5o billion. Some of the savings could go toward maintaining the B-2 and the Air Force’s 90 or so remaining B-52s, still the workhorse of the skies after 60 years in service. 

One other much-discussed money-saving step, however, would be shortsighted: removing the 180 or so B61 tactical bombs now deployed at airfields in Europe. They should be kept in place and modernized -- in part to remind Russian President Vladimir Putin that the U.S. still has Europe's back.

It's hard to put an exact price tag on the savings such changes would achieve. But a less ambitious plan by Republican Senator Tom Coburn, which envisioned keeping 300 ICBMs, had projected savings of $79 billion over a decade. That would pay for a whole bunch of new magic wrenches.

(Updates with report of Hagel's expected resignation in second paragraph. Corrects status of Senator Tom Coburn in final paragraph.)

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.