U.S. Nuclear Costs, Projections Continue to Rise

April 2024
By Xiaodon Liang

The Biden administration’s $850 billion defense budget request for fiscal year 2025 would increase spending for Defense Department nuclear weapons programs by 31 percent over the current year and projects sharply rising future costs for some key nuclear modernization programs.

An artist’s rendering of a future U.S. Navy Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine, which will replace the Ohio-class submarines that are nearing the end of their service life. The new ships are part of a major U.S. nuclear weapons modernization program. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Navy) The request for National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) weapons-related activities is 4 percent higher than appropriated by Congress for fiscal year 2024. In all, the budget request, unveiled on March 11, calls for $69 billion for nuclear weapons operations, sustainment, and modernization, including $49 billion for Pentagon programs and the rest for the NNSA. The combined budgets would be 22 percent higher than last year.

Three key nuclear rearmament programs are driving increasing costs. The funding request for the new Sentinel intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) system foresees lifetime research and development (R&D) and procurement costs that are 44 percent higher than anticipated in the 2024 budget request. The Columbia-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine program will consume 30 percent of the Navy’s $32 billion shipbuilding budget under the administration’s spending plan for 2025, up from 17 percent in the budget authorized by Congress for 2024.

Meanwhile, the cost of producing plutonium pits at the 80-unit-per-year rate mandated by Congress is projected to rise to more than $4 billion per year from fiscal years 2027 to 2029.

The administration released the new budget request before Congress completed work on the appropriations bills that actually fund the government for the current fiscal year. Congressional negotiators finalized the fiscal 2024 appropriation figures for the Defense Department in late March.

In line with the Air Force’s disclosure in January that the Sentinel ICBM program likely would exceed baseline unit costs by 37 percent and its entry into service would be delayed by two years, the president’s request substantially raised projected R&D spending associated with the program. (See ACT, March 2024.) Last year, the R&D costs for fiscal years 2025 to 2028 were estimated at $11 billion, and now that projection is $14 billion.

Speaking at an industry conference March 7, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall acknowledged the budgetary squeeze created by the cost overruns. “We see very big problems dealing with [fiscal] ‘26. We're looking at a number of things which are increasing. Sentinel is one of them,” he said.

The Air Force requested $539 million in advance-year procurement money on the Sentinel program in 2024, but later asked congressional appropriators to shift that money to R&D. There is no further procurement request in the 2025 budget. In 2020 the Pentagon estimated that the total cost of the next-generation Sentinel program, including decades of operations and support, could be as high as $264 billion. (See ACT, March 2021.) Taking the new increases into account, the total cost of the program over its planned 50-year life cycle could be as high as $300 billion, plus another $15 billion to produce the new W87-1 warhead for the missiles. (See ACT, March 2024.)

The cost overruns put the Sentinel program in “critical” breach of the Nunn-McCurdy Act, triggering a mandatory investigation into the root causes of the unanticipated cost increases. By mid-April, the Defense Department is required to give Congress an explanation of the cost increase, changes in the projected cost, changes in performance or schedule, and action taken or proposed to control growth.

The Sentinel program is in “deep trouble,” Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.) of the House Armed Services Committee and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) of the Senate Armed Services Committee wrote in a March 14 letter to Kristyn Jones, the acting undersecretary of the Air Force. The lawmakers called for a thorough assessment of alternatives to the Sentinel program, including possibly extending the life of the Minuteman III ICBM to 2030, 2040, or 2050.

Funding for the W87-1 warhead associated with the Sentinel ICBM would stay flat at $1.1 billion in 2025 under the administration’s budget proposal.

The request calls for $8 billion for R&D and procurement of the new long-range B-21 strategic bomber, slightly less than the 2024 appropriation. The Air Force would receive less for the Long-Range Standoff (LRSO) weapons system, a new nuclear-armed, air-launched cruise missile, with funding falling from the $950 million appropriated in 2024 to $833 million for 2025. Spending on the W80-4 warhead for the LRSO system would increase from $1 billion to $1.2 billion.

Spending on the Columbia-class submarine would increase sharply from $6.1 billion in 2024 to $9.8 billion in 2025. Several media outlets, citing unnamed sources, reported March 11 that the first ship would not launch until 2028, a year later than planned.

To address production challenges and delays affecting the Columbia-class submarine and the Virginia-class attack submarine programs, the administration asked for $3.3 billion in 2024 supplemental funding to invest in the submarine industrial base. Speaking in support of the supplementary request March 11, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack Reed (D-R.I.) called on contractors to “do better” and “get their personnel situation straightened out,” according to National Defense.

The budget also seeks $743 million for development of a new W93 submarine-launched ballistic missile warhead and its aeroshell, an increase above the $516 million that was appropriated by Congress in fiscal 2024.

The administration’s request did not include funding for the nuclear-capable sea-launched cruise missile despite the mandate in the 2024 National Defense Authorization Act that the administration establish a program of record for the system. Congress appropriated $90 million for the missile and $70 million for its warhead in the 2024 budget. (See ACT, January/February 2024.)

In the NNSA request, funding for plutonium-pit modernization and production at the Savannah River Site would increase from the $1.1 billion enacted by Congress in 2024 to $1.3 billion, while funding for the same activities at Los Alamos National Laboratory would decline from $1.8 billion to $1.5 billion. The NNSA significantly raised its projections for plutonium production and modernization costs for the 2025-2028 time period from $12.3 billion to $14.8 billion.

In a January 2023 report, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) assessed that the NNSA had not developed a comprehensive schedule or cost estimate for the plutonium modernization program that met GAO best practices. The GAO found activities and milestones missing from the NNSA schedule and flagged a likelihood of disruption and delay.

Meanwhile, spending on NNSA arms control and nonproliferation programs would increase from $212 million appropriated by Congress for 2024 to $225 million. The administration request for the Defense Department Cooperative Threat Reduction program would remain unchanged at $350 million.

Following testing setbacks and delays, the administration has eliminated funding for procuring the Navy’s hypersonic Conventional Prompt Strike system while requesting R&D spending of roughly $900 million. The Army variant of the system, the Long-Range Hypersonic Weapon, would receive $538 million in R&D funding and an additional $744 million for procurement under the proposed budget.

Two months after Congress eliminated funding for the Air Force’s Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon (see ACT, January/February 2024), the Biden administration increased its R&D request for the service’s other hypersonic program, the Hypersonic Attack Cruise Missile. That program would receive $517 million in 2025, according to the budget proposal, up from $343 million appropriated by Congress for 2024.

Spending on missile defense programs would decline under the administration request, with total costs for the Aegis ballistic missile defense system and purchases of Standard Missile-3 Block IB and IIA interceptor missiles declining from the $1.7 billion appropriated last year to $1.3 billion.

Likewise, spending on design and development of the Missile Defense Agency’s Next Generation Interceptor, a new component of the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense system, would be reduced from the $2.1 billion appropriated in 2024 to $1.7 billion.