The United States is preparing to spend almost $704 billion over the next several decades on its nuclear arsenal according to the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA), a non-profit policy institute that focuses on national security issues. This astronomically high cost to modernize the US nuclear force comes despite the shifting nature of war and an ever growing budgetary problem. In light of this, can the United States afford such an expensive overhaul?
In short, the answer is no. Sure, the US could technically afford to spend $704 billion — so long as its nuclear arsenal was the nation’s number one spending priority. However, nuclear weapons cannot be used in response to malign rogue groups and certainly lacks proportionality to the building of airstrips in the South China Sea. Military priorities today and in the future require many things, but such a large nuclear weapons force is not one of them.
Opponents of this line of thinking argue the United States must maintain its current nuclear stockpile to serve as a deterrent from potential adversaries. Of course, the only other country with nearly as many available weapons is Russia. However, the great success of several arms control and non-proliferation treaties in having reduced these arsenals by the thousands, serves as a reminder that the two sides can and should work together to reduce their nuclear forces and the threats posed to one another.
But after Russia, what nuclear threat remains? China has a self-declared “no first use” nuclear strike policy dating back to the Mao era, India and Pakistan are absorbed in their own ongoing dispute, and, with the exception of North Korea, all other nuclear powers are allies of the US. The greatest potential threat stems from North Korea, but any attack, assuming they could miniaturize a warhead and deliver it to the United States, would guarantee an American response that would overwhelm the Kim regime, making such an attack an assured death wish.
The relevance of maintaining thousands of nuclear weapons is in real doubt. The US must turn its attention to the cost of its nuclear program and ascertain whether or not it wishes to continue investing in a system that does not meet the defense challenges of today.
The CSBA report thoroughly explains the estimated cost of modernizing each leg of the US nuclear triad, but continually dismisses the notion that affordability should be a leading component of the discussion. The report says arguments over affordability are “not a very useful perspective” and claims that one can “dismiss the notion that they [nuclear weapons] are unaffordable.” But at $704 billion (with some estimates eclipsing $1 trillion over the next several decades), the cost of America’s nuclear force must be seriously considered. The report quotes David Mosher who said that cutting costs in the nuclear force was a “hunt for small potatoes.” But cost savings of billions of dollars hardly sounds like “small potatoes.” Furthermore, if the cost of modernizing the nuclear triad was so insubstantial, why does the Navy need a special off-budget account, the Sea-Based Deterrence Fund, for the Ohio-class submarine replacement program?
Anytime you discuss the US defense budget, it is easy to claim that any given program is “relatively small” in cost compared to the whole. But when you consider other national needs, such as education and healthcare for those with low incomes, it seems absurd and unnecessary to spend billions of dollars on the nuclear triad.
The United States is approaching an important choice. Will it continue to fully fund its nuclear arsenal, the largest deployed force in the world? Or will it make reductions that would improve its fiscal situation and promote nuclear arsenal reductions among other countries? The CSBA report concedes that reductions in the triad are possible if the political will exists to pursue those reductions. Spending over $700 billion to modernize America’s nuclear force is certainly avoidable; all we have to do is try.