Nuclear Costs Undercounted, GAO Says

Tom Z. Collina

By leaving out major Air Force nuclear missile and bomber modernization programs, the Obama administration underestimated by tens of billions of dollars the amount of money the U.S. government will spend on its nuclear arsenal over the next decade, according to a June report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

The GAO, the investigative arm of Congress, reviewed a July 15, 2013, joint report by the Defense Department and the Energy Department’s semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), which estimated the two agencies would spend $263 billion on nuclear weapons from fiscal year 2014 to 2023, including $125 billion for nuclear delivery systems (missiles, bombers, and submarines), $97 billion for nuclear warheads and production plants, and $41 billion for nuclear command-and-control systems.

The GAO found that the Pentagon’s $125 billion estimate for delivery systems had the largest discrepancy as it did not include costs for Air Force plans to buy a new fleet of long-range bombers and modernize its fleet of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). “Rather than provide potential budget estimates, [the Defense Department] treated these efforts as zero-cost over the ten-year period of the report,” the GAO said.

Air Force officials, the GAO reported, said that it would be premature to include cost estimates for programs that are in early stages of development because long-term costs are uncertain. The GAO suggested that agencies could include a range of estimates based on available information.

The costs for these Air Force programs would be significant, according to recent estimates. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimated in 2013 that the new bomber would cost $32 billion over the next decade, and the Air Force itself estimated that total production, covering a longer period of time, would cost about $55 billion for up to 100 planes, not including development costs.

For ICBMs, a RAND Corporation report earlier this year found that modernizing the planned 400 Minuteman III missiles in silos would cost $1.6-2.3 billion per year, or $60-90 billion over a 39-year life cycle. In comparison, building a new silo-based ICBM would cost $84-$125 billion, and a rail- or road-mobile version would cost $124-$219 billion, RAND found.

A December 2013 CBO report, which included these Air Force programs as well as projected cost growth, estimated that spending related to nuclear weapons would total $355 billion over 10 years, $91 billion more than the administration’s estimate.