The Rising Cost of Nuclear Forces

In February 2017, the Congressional Budget Office released a biennial report on the projected costs of U.S. nuclear forces for the next 10 years. This year’s report estimates that nuclear forces will cost $400 billion dollars from 2017 to 2026, a 15% increase over CBO’s previous estimate (for 2015 to 2024). The CBO report provides Congress with an objective fiscal analysis as the legislative body decides how to overhaul the nation’s nuclear arsenal. Given the high price tag of the overhaul effort (approximately $1 trillion over three decades), Congress should seriously consider the utility of each component of the program, and only authorize funding for those that are truly essential for deterrence.

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Within the defense budget, any dollar spent on nuclear forces is a dollar not spent on conventional capabilities. As such, excessive spending on unnecessary nuclear programs weakens U.S. national security.

The CBO report breaks down the $400 billion total into the following components: $189 billion for strategic nuclear delivery systems and weapons; $9 billion for tactical nuclear delivery systems and weapons; $87 billion for nuclear weapons laboratories and supporting activities; and $58 billion for command, control, communications and early warning systems. The remaining $56 billion represents CBO’s estimates for likely cost overruns.

Increases in projected costs stem largely from the fact that the most recent estimates capture a period further along in the weapons systems’ development process, as the costs of these programs tend to increase as they proceed. Furthermore, plans for overhauling the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) program and building a new nuclear cruise missile have been expanded or accelerated.

Considering the finite Pentagon budget, it is unclear how the nuclear overhaul effort will be fully financed. In fact, senior Pentagon officials have questioned the affordability and necessity of the current plan. Brian McKeon, then Principal Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, bluntly stated, “We’re looking at that big [nuclear overhaul] bow wave and wondering how the heck we’re going to pay for it, and probably thanking our lucky stars we won’t be here to answer the question.” And Frank Kendall, the former Pentagon acquisitions chief, plainly said, “We do have a huge affordability problem with nuclear modernization.”

Others have identified specific programs that are exorbitantly expensive, but do not increase American national security. Former Assistant Secretary of Defense Andrew Weber and former Secretary of Defense William J. Perry argue that “there is scant justification for spending tens of billions of dollars on a new nuclear air-launched cruise missile and related warhead life-extension program.” Secretary Perry has also pushed back against the new ICBM, known as the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD): “the American plan to rebuild and maintain our nuclear force is needlessly oversize and expensive, expected to cost about $1 trillion over the next three decades … The good news is that the United States can downsize its plans, save tens of billions of dollars, and still maintain a robust nuclear arsenal.”

The 2017 CBO report, which reflects the steadily growing cost of the “modernization mountain,” is a wake-up call that Congress cannot afford to ignore. Instead of unquestioningly funneling money into the overhaul plan, Congress should seriously debate the merits of each of its components and only those that maintain deterrence and thus benefit American national security.

Bernadette Stadler is a Herbert Scoville Jr. Peace Fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.