CBO: Nuclear Weapons Still Expensive

By Kingston Reif

A new report from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) released today estimates that the United States will spend $348 billion on nuclear weapons over the next decade, or 5 percent to 6 percent of the total costs of the administration’s plans for national defense. But this is just the tip of the coming budget bow wave. Over the next 30 years, the bill could add up to $1 trillion, according to recent report of the National Defense Panel Review of the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review.

The USS Wyoming, an Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine, returns to Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay in Georgia on June 28. The Navy is planning to replace the Ohio-class submarines, but the cost of the replacement is prompting a debate in Washington. (U.S. Navy)This planned spending encompasses a massive rebuild of all three legs of the existing nuclear “triad” of land-based missiles, submarines-based missiles, short- and long-range bombers and their associated warheads. 

The enormous price tag for nuclear weapons comes at a time when other big national security bills are coming due. Congress has mandated reductions in planned military spending, and the President’s military advisors have determined that the United States has more nuclear weapons than it needs for its security.

Today’s report is an update to the cost study that CBO released in December 2013, which put the anticipated price tag for U.S. nuclear forces between FY 2014 and FY 2023 at $355 billion. The update, which estimates the cost between FY 2015 and FY 2024, is slightly less than last year’s estimate due to “budget-driven delays in several programs, including a three-year delay for the new cruise missile and its nuclear warhead.”

CBO’s spending projection is approximately $51 billion more than the $297 billion ten-year estimate the Defense and Energy Department’s provided to Congress last year. The difference would be even larger but for the fact that CBO only counts 25% of the costs of the next generation long-range strategic bomber as nuclear-related, whereas the Defense Department estimate counts the entire cost of the new bomber.

Neither the CBO nor executive branch estimates include the 10 percent annual increase in funding over the next five years proposed by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel late last year in response to the raft of professional and ethical lapses and poor morale in the U.S. nuclear force. This could add at least another $6-$7 billion in costs.

CBO’s update reinforces a number of concerns and recommendations made by the Arms Control Association about current nuclear weapons spending plans and the policy assumptions that are driving them.

First, though the military has already determined that the United States can reduce the size of its deployed strategic nuclear arsenal by up to one third below the New START level of 1,550 warheads, the current spending plans would allow the United States to keep a force like the one it has now for decades to come. While such an excessive capability might be nice to have, it is gratuitously redundant and the projected cost is a threat to other defense priorities.  

Second, the CBO and executive branch estimates only capture part of the nuclear modernization cost. The biggest bills aren’t slated to come due until the early- to mid-2020s, meaning a significant portion of the costs fall outside the ten-year window. “We’ve got a big affordability problem out there with those [nuclear modernization] programs,” Frank Kendall, Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, said last month.

Congress would benefit from a clearer picture of the longer-term costs. Lawmakers should require that the Pentagon and the Department of Energy to provide it with a detailed estimate of the remaining life-cycle-costs of the existing triad and estimates (or a range of estimates where necessary) of the full life cycle costs for newly planned systems.

Third, pursuit of the current nuclear spending plan will force irrational cuts to other defense and national security priorities. In 2011, Congress approved the Budget Control Act, which places limits on discretionary spending, including military spending. These caps would require significant reductions in military spending from current projections through the end of the decade. It has been reported that the Pentagon’s FY 2016 budget request will exceed the budget caps by approximately $34 billion. If Congress doesn’t overturn the caps, the Defense Department will take a hit equivalent to 6% of its budget. 

Faced with increasing pressure to reduce military spending, the recent National Defense Panel report called the Obama administration’s plans to rebuild the nuclear arsenal “unaffordable” and a threat to “needed improvements in conventional forces.”

Fourth, while the budget challenge facing the military can’t be solved on the back of nuclear weapons, billions could be saved by trimming portions of the arsenal and scaling back current modernization plans. According to a CBO report published last November, the Defense Department could save approximately $55 billion over the next decade by reducing the number of ballistic missile submarines from 12 to 8 and deferring development of 80-100 new long-range bombers, some or all of which may be nuclear-capable. (The Air Force is pursuing a new long-range penetrating bomber primarily for conventional reasons, but CBO estimates 25% of the costs as nuclear-related.)

Last October the Arms Control Association released a report that outlined ways to save roughly $70 billion between FY 2014 and FY 2023 across all three legs of the triad and the warheads they carry. Included in this figure are the savings from adjusting the plans for new ballistic missile submarines and bombers, as well as options for scaling back or delaying other expensive new delivery systems and taking a more disciplined approach to rebuilding warheads.

CBO’s reports on the projected costs of nuclear forces have brought a much-needed dose of fiscal perspective to the debate about the future of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Whether one thinks the United States has too many or too few nuclear weapons, it is no longer possible to hide from their immense cost.