The daunting fiscal challenge posed by current plans to upgrade America’s nuclear arsenal is now President Donald Trump’s problem. If the forthcoming Nuclear Posture Review by the administration does not reshape these plans—or worse, accelerates or expands upon them—spending on nuclear weapons will pose a major threat to higher priority national security programs, to say nothing about Trump’s pledge to expand the non-nuclear military.
That’s the key takeaway from a new Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report released Wednesday on the projected cost of U.S. nuclear forces over the next decade.
The CBO estimates that the United States will spend $400 billion (in then-year dollars) on nuclear weapons between fiscal years 2017 and 2026, or six percent of the projected total costs of national defense as outlined in the Obama administration’s Fiscal Year 2017 budget request.
The new projection is an increase of $52 billion, or 15 percent, over the CBO’s most recent previous estimate of the 10-year cost of nuclear forces, which was published in January 2015 and put the total cost at $348 billion.
“Most of the increase in the total estimated cost of nuclear forces reflects the fact that the current estimate spans a 10-year period that begins and ends two years later than the 2015 estimate and thus includes two later years of development in nuclear modernization programs,” according to the CBO.
In addition, the report notes, “the two years since CBO’s earlier estimate, the modernization plans for some nuclear systems have become better defined, leading to higher cost projections for some programs and lower projections for others.” For example, projected spending to maintain and modernize the intercontinental ballistic missile leg of the triad is $16 billion more than the CBO’s 2015 estimate.
The new 10-year estimate captures the beginning of the major planned ramp-up in spending to recapitalize all three legs of the existing nuclear “triad” of submarines, missiles and bombers and their associated warheads and supporting infrastructure, but even larger bills are still to come.
In fact, the CBO’s latest projection suggest that the cost of nuclear forces could greatly exceed $1 trillion over the next 30 years.
Numerous Pentagon officials and outside experts have warned about the affordability problem posed by the current modernization plans and that they cannot be sustained in the absence of significant long-term increases to defense spending or cuts to other military priorities.
While increases in defense spending relative to the current levels imposed by the 2011 Budget Control Act (as amended) would reduce the pressure imposed by the coming nuclear and conventional modernization bulge, it is far from certain and probably unlikely that budgets will rise to the levels needed to accommodate the current plans.
As it undertakes its Nuclear Posture Review this year, the Trump administration must seriously examine options to reshape and rescale the plans and adequately fund a smaller number of projects that would still leave the United States with a capable and credible deterrent.
The current approach assumes that the United States will maintain a nuclear arsenal like the one it has now for decades to come. However, the Obama administration, with the support of the Joint Chiefs of staff, determined that the United States can reduce the size of its deployed strategic nuclear arsenal by up to one-third below the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) levels.
According to a CBO report published in December, at least 10 percent of the projected cost of nuclear forces over the next decade could be saved by trimming back the current plans while still maintaining a triad of delivery systems. Even larger savings would accrue over the subsequent decade.
By contrast, accelerating or expanding the scope of the modernization effort, including by developing new types or warheads and/or delivery systems, would put ever greater strain on the budget and undermine U.S. security.
President Trump tweeted December that the United States “must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability” and later told a television host that he would “outmatch” and “outlast” other potential competitors in a nuclear arms race. Last week it was reported that Trump denounced New START and rejected the idea of extending the treaty.
Meanwhile, a recent report by the Defense Science Board called for the development of additional options for limited nuclear use, a recommendation endorsed by some members of Congress.
While it is unclear how these statements and suggestions might translate into actual policy, there is no room in the budget to “expand” the scope and the cost of the modernization plans.
The nuclear budget challenge is not going away and the Trump administration will have to take steps to defuse this ticking time bomb.