America’s Nuclear Weapons are Affordable, But at What Cost?

Titan II Missle Site and MuseumA forthcoming study by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) serves as a reminder that the US must evaluate the worthiness of investing billions of dollars into its nuclear arsenal. The study addresses affordability and concludes that “U.S. nuclear forces are affordable because their projected costs account for a small percentage of the overall defense budget.”

But affordability is a product of priorities. Sure, the United States could spend billions of dollars modernizing its nuclear arsenal, but it would result in significant trade-offs from both the defense and non-defense budgets. And in a time of great budgetary pressure, the US cannot, nor does it need to, maintain such high levels of nuclear spending.

The CSBA report cites a Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimate that over the next ten years the United States will need to spend nearly $350 billion to maintain its nuclear weapons program. That is $350 billion with a capital “B,” folks. And that figure is not even the most extreme projection available. In a recent House Armed Services Committee hearing, Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work informed the Committee that CSBA’s cost estimates are too low and too optimistic. Work points to a specific flaw in the report that places the cost of the new Long Range Strike Bomber at twice what CSBA reported. And military development projects have a history of cost over runs, just look at the ongoing F-35 program.

But does the United States need such an expansive and expensive nuclear arsenal? In brief, the answer is no. “The United States doesn’t need a nuclear force large enough to survive a decapitating first strike because there is no such threat,” according to Walter Pincus of the Washington Post. The notion of 1500 deployable nuclear warheads seems excessive, even when the need for a nuclear deterrent and possible threats are factored in. Moreover, Kingston Reif, Director for Disarmament and Threat Reduction Policy at the Arms Control Association argues, “While nuclear weapons still retain value as a deterrent, changing geopolitical and technological conditions have made them a niche weapon, not the bedrock of US security.”

So if the chances of a first strike against the United States are astronomically small and nuclear weapons are no longer the bedrock of US national security, how do we justify heightened spending for a weapon that has become dramatically less valuable with the close of the Cold War?

Provided the CBO estimate of $350 billion over the next ten years is correct, the United States will have to spend $35 billion a year on its nuclear weapons program. That is a huge number and begs the question, “What else could be done with so much money?” The US currently has dozens of problems that need to be addressed through improved policy and with greater funding. National spending must reflect national priorities, including security concerns. There are roads that need to be paved and improvements in health access for the poor that must occur. The US has a growing obesity problem that has failed to be effectively addressed and children falling through the cracks of its welfare services. In cities like Washington D.C. there are thousands of people who are homeless and trapped in the devastating cycle of poverty. Programs that address these problems could desperately use the funding provided for America’s nuclear force. It is important to remember that government spending comes down to priorities. If the US can maintain its national security with fewer nuclear weapons and at a lower annual cost, it should.