A rendering of a B-21 bomber at Dyess Air Force Base in Texas.

A rendering of a B-21 bomber at Dyess Air Force Base in Texas. U.S. Air Force

We Don’t Have Enough Cash to Build New Nuclear Weapons, Says Air Force Chief

Nukes or conventional weapons, “the current budget does not allow you to do both,” says Gen. Dave Goldfein, suggesting Congress create a separate account.

The Pentagon’s budget is not large enough to buy new nuclear weapons and conventional forces simultaneously, the U.S. Air Force’s top general said Wednesday.

Chief of Staff Gen. Dave Goldfein gave a blunt assessment of the Pentagon's growing list of bills amid a growing US deficit, on Wednesday, suggesting nuclear expenses have grown so great they may require a separate account of their own.

“I think a debate is that this will be the first time that the nation has tried to simultaneously modernize the nuclear enterprise while it's trying to modernize an aging conventional enterprise,” Goldfein said during a Brookings Institution appearance. “The current budget does not allow you to do both.”

The Trump administration’s $705 billion fiscal 2021 budget request for the Pentagon — which Congress is reviewing — calls for nearly $29 billion in nuclear weapons spending. The money would go toward new stealth bombers, intercontinental ballistic missiles, ballistic missile submarines, a new nuclear cruise missile and upgrades to the global nuclear command, control and communications network. The stealth bomber is the only weapon that could be used for nuclear or conventional strikes. The Energy Department, which oversees nuclear warheads, has requested $15.6 billion in fiscal 2021.

In January 2019, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that the Pentagon’s nuclear weapons spending plan would cost $494 billion between 2019 and 2028, an average of about $50 billion per year.

Pentagon officials today argue they need 3 to 5 percent annual spending increases to fund weapons projects of all kinds, however defense spending is expected to flatten or slightly decline in the coming years regardless who wins November’s presidential election. 

“There are either going to be some significant trades made or we're going to have to find a fund for strategic nuclear deterrence, that we can use to modernize,” Goldfein said.

In recent years, Pentagon officials, including former Defense Secretary Ash Carter, and lawmakers have considered creating a nuclear weapons fund separate from the military services budgets. Todd Harrison, director of defense budget analysis and the Aerospace Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, questioned the rationale for moving those funds.

“It doesn’t make new money appear,” he said.

During the Obama administration, the Pentagon began the decades-long process of updating its nuclear arsenal with new ICBMs, bombers, submarines and missiles. Some independent estimates say the price tag could reach nearly $1.7 trillion over the next 30 years. How to pay for it is still debated in the Defense Department, but the need for nuclear weapons is not.

“I would just offer that in my mind, I could never advise anybody to unilaterally disarm or give up second strike capability,” Goldfein said. “I do believe we have to have a debate about the way we're going to fund this essential part of our military going forward."