Ka-Boom

How ‘No Nukes’ Obama Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

There was a time when the president wanted to rid the world of nuclear weapons. Now, his Pentagon is looking to build and build them.

02.06.15 10:55 AM ET

In the early days of his presidency, Barack Obama declared his commitment to “seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.” Now, six years later, Obama’s Pentagon is kick-starting a massive effort to revamp its doomsday arsenal—building all sorts of new weapons that Obama once said he didn’t want.

Under the Pentagon’s new budget proposal—which is still subject to congressional approval—the Defense Department would accelerate the development of a new nuclear-tipped cruise missile, modernize its ballistic missiles, and continue to invest in new ballistic missile submarines and new, nuclear-capable stealth bombers.

“Our nuclear deterrent force is aging. It will be modernized in the 2020s and 2030s,” deputy defense secretary Bob Work told reporters at the Pentagon this week. “We need to keep the old equipment and systems going, but it is becoming more expensive for us to do so and requiring us to divert resources in that regard.”

The Arms Control Association’s Kingston Reif later called the new president’s proposed budget the “biggest down payment to date on a planned unaffordable and unsustainable nuclear spending binge.” Reif noted that Obama—who had promised to work toward ridding the world of nuclear weapons—would preside over a massive rebuilding of the American nuclear weapons complex.

“Part of President Barack Obama’s legacy on nuclear weapons will now be as the president who set in motion plans to remake a nuclear arsenal like the one the United States has today for decades to come,” Reif wrote.

One of the most notable instances where the Obama administration has adopted a more aggressive posture in on the new Long-Range Standoff (LRSO) cruise missile, which the new budget accelerates by two years. The weapons should enter service in 2028, based on the previous schedule for the missile. (The latest budget doesn’t actually say when the LRSO is supposed to become operational.)

The Pentagon has budgeted for $36.6 million for early development work on the new LRSO weapon—a nuclear-tipped cruise missile, designed to replace the current weapon that is mounted on the B-52.

The current Air Launched Cruise Missile is increasing vulnerable to enemy air defenses—and the Air Force is running out the weapons. Many of those old cruise missiles have had their nuclear warheads removed and have been armed with conventional explosives. The new weapon is designed to punch through the toughest of enemy air defenses; Russia’s, for example. “The LRSO weapon system will be capable of penetrating and surviving advanced Integrated Air Defense Systems from significant stand-off range to prosecute strategic targets,” the budget document reads.

Meanwhile, the Air Force is continuing on its quest to develop a super stealthy new bomber called the Long-Range Strike-Bomber (LRS-B) for $550 million each that would be flying by the mid-2020s that will carry the LRSO missile. The Air Force won’t say much about the new bomber except that it will be extremely stealthy, subsonic, and that it will be nuclear capable in time. “The LRS-B aircraft must be able to penetrate highly contested environments, have top-end low observability characteristics, and loiter capability,” the budget documents state.

Given the stealth requirement, the plane is almost certainly going to be a flying wing similar in concept to the $2.2 billion Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit stealth bomber.

The LRS-B bomber program is slated to receive $1.2 billion in the 2016 budget proposal. Either Northrop Grumman or a Boeing/Lockheed Martin team will win the contract to build the new bomber—which is going to worth at least $50 billion research and development—later this year. The Air Force wants between 80 and 100 new bombers.

The Pentagon is also modernizing its antiquated Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile force while starting the development of a new weapon, too. It could be operational by 2027. However, despite the budget documents stating that these weapons are a priority, the money included in the budget appears to be relatively miniscule—only $39.7 million. But this is just the start of a long and expensive process—and arms-control experts like Reif and even outgoing Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel have questioned the need for a new ICBM.

“There is no need to build a new ICBM,” Reif told The Daily Beast in January. “RAND did a report last year showing that the United States can maintain the ICBM leg of the [nuclear] triad [of bombers, ballistic missile submarines and land-based missiles] for decades to come by simply pursuing refurbishment,” Reif said. “That would be much cheaper.”

Meanwhile, the U.S. Navy’s new ballistic missile submarine is getting a huge amount of cash for research and development. That’s largely because it will be the single most survivable part of America’s nuclear forces. The service needs to start development now before the first of the existing Ohio-class submarines have to be pulled out of service in the late 2020s.

The budget includes $1.39 billion to develop various parts of the new submarine, including its nuclear reactor and new permanent magnet motor electrical drive—which should make the boat extraordinarily stealthy. Unlike a traditional nuclear submarine where a steam turbine directly turns the screw, the pump-jet propulsor, a type of shrouded propeller, on the new boats is connected to an electric motor. The new motor should make the submarine exceptionally quiet because there is no way to transmit vibrations from the stream turbine and the various gears down a drive shaft into the water. If it works, that is. Late last year, a Navy official speaking at the Naval Submarine League conference told the audience that the service would not have a sea-going prototype of the revolutionary permanent magnet motor before the new submarines are built.

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The new submarines will carry 16 ballistic missiles, compared to the 24 found on current boats. But despite carrying few missiles, the new submarines will be considerably larger than the current Ohio-class ships. The new submarines are larger because of the sheer size and weight of the new permanent magnet electrical motor. But larger submarines have more bulk to absorb noise. One of key elements of a ballistic missile submarine is that it survives long enough to launch its doomsday payload, which means the Navy puts a huge premium on stealth—which in the case of a sub equates to silence. Some analysts have questioned if the Navy is focusing too much on making the subs quiet while neglecting other potential threats. Moreover, many in Congress and the Navy wonder if the service will be able to pay for the new submarines and still afford new surface ships.

The new “boomers” will start being built in 2021 and the first one should be ready for service in 2028. The Navy hopes to reduce the price of the boats to $4.9 billion per submarine, but early estimates showed that the vessels might cost as much as $ 7 billion. The service wants to buy 12 of these new boomers.

Meanwhile, the Navy is working on modernizing the Trident II ballistic missile that will go inside the missile tubes of those submarines. The Navy is budgeting $1.2 billion to keep going forward with a plan to extend the life of the missiles to at least 2042. But eventually, the plan is to replace the 1980s vintage Trident II with a new weapon. When that might happen is an open question—but it will cost billions of dollars when that day comes.

Obama may still hold those goals he expressed in 2009, when he said that his administration would “reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy” and “take concrete steps toward a world without nuclear weapons.” If Obama still does feel that way, someone forgot to tell his Pentagon about it.