Proponents of America’s half-a-trillion-dollar nuclear modernization plan argue that the costs will only impose a small financial burden relative to the overall military budget–and an even smaller burden relative to overall federal spending.
Loren Thompson, with the Lexington Institute, wrote last month, “Relative to the size of the national economy, the cost of nuclear force modernization wouldn't be much bigger than a rounding error.”
The Defense Department expects the cost to modernize U.S. nuclear forces over the next 20 years to be between $350-$450 billion. When coupled with the cost to sustain America’s existing nuclear forces, Pentagon officials estimate that spending on nuclear weapons will consume about 7 percent of the total defense budget. As a percentage of the federal budget, the nuclear share would be far less.
Ultimately, how one views the magnitude of these costs depends in large part on the security value one ascribes to nuclear weapns and to completing the proposed "all-of-the-above" modernization approach.
Yet claiming that spending on nuclear weapons will account for only a small fraction of total military or federal spending downplays the financial pressure that the current spending plans will impose on the defense budget. It also obscures the fact that the plans exceed what the president has deemed is required for nuclear deterrence and prioritizing the nuclear mission runs a high risk of forcing counterproductive cuts to both nuclear and other defense and national security priorities.
First, numerous Pentagon officials have raised the alarm bells about the affordability of America’s nuclear weapons modernization project.
“We’re looking at that big [nuclear] bow wave and wondering how the heck we’re going to pay for it,” said Brian McKeon, the principal undersecretary of defense for policy, in October at an event in Washington.
Second, comparing the costs of nuclear weapons to overall military or federal spending reveals far less than may meet the eye.
A better juxtaposition would be to pit planned spending on nuclear modernization against overall Pentagon modernization spending, as there are areas of the budget where dollars are likely to be most directly in competition.
In a January report assessing 120 major defense acquisition programs, Todd Harrison, the director of defense budget analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, showed that spending on nuclear weapons programs accounts for about 12%-19% of total modernization costs over the next 15 years, depending on how you count dual-use systems, such as the B-21 bomber (see chart).
Third, the opportunity costs of projected nuclear modernization spending are likely to be punishing, particularly when viewed from the perspective of the Navy and Air Force acquisition budgets. Indeed, the Navy has repeatedly warned about what its new ballistic missile submarine program could do to the rest of its shipbuilding budget in the absence of a significant influx of new funding above the historical average.
Most budget watchers agree that it is unlikely that there will be enough money to fund all of the Defense and Energy Department’s priorities, especially during the decade of the 2020s when costs are expected to peak. Unforeseen cost overruns, which are not atypical for big-ticket Defense and Energy Department acquisition programs, would exacerbate the budget challenge.
A possible, if not likely, outcome of the current trajectory we’re on is that the current nuclear weapons spending plans will collapse under their own weight and force reductions in U.S. nuclear forces based on fiscal and political pressure rather than strategic decision, but not before hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars are squandered.
How is this outcome to be avoided? The answer, not surprisingly, is 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.
For example, the current plans assume that the United States will maintain a nuclear arsenal like the one it has now for decades to come. However, the president 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 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty levels.
Given current budget constraints, higher priority defense needs, and the fact that the current arsenal of approximately 4,600 nuclear weapons is largely irrelevant to America’s most pressing national security challenges, the United States does not need and cannot afford to overspend on nuclear weapons.