Executive Summary

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The United States currently plans to spend at least $355 billion to maintain and rebuild its Cold War-era nuclear arsenal over the next decade, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO). Over the next 30 years, the bill could add up to $1 trillion, according to another independent estimate.

These eye-popping projections come at a time when the U.S. defense budget is declining along with the role of nuclear weapons in defense strategy.

In 2011, Congress approved the Budget Control Act, which requires significant reductions in Defense Department spending from current projections over the next decade.

With this in mind, an independent Federal commission recently called the plans for modernizing the U.S. nuclear arsenal “unaffordable” and a threat to “needed improvements in conventional forces.”

New international security challenges are demanding U.S. military and diplomatic attention around the globe—from Russia’s interference in Ukraine, the growing threat of extreme terrorism in Iraq and Syria, and the Ebola virus in Africa.

In response, some are calling to bust the budget caps and increase defense spending. But given that Congress would need to agree to such a major change—an unlikely prospect—it would be wise to plan for fewer defense dollars over the next ten years at least.

Fortunately, there is a sizable chunk of the Pentagon budget that can be safely cut back: the U.S. nuclear arsenal.
None of the highest priority threats facing the United States can be effectively resolved with nuclear weapons or the buildup of nuclear capabilities. And the U.S. nuclear force remains far larger than is necessary to deter nuclear attack against the United States or its allies.

The Pentagon announced in 2013 that it could reduce strategic nuclear forces by one-third below levels set by the 2010 New START Treaty, continuing a historical trend. The U.S. nuclear stockpile has dropped by 80 percent since its peak in 1967, but is still a formidable force of about 4,800 warheads.

The increasingly high cost of nuclear weapons, combined with shrinking budgets and stockpiles, should compel the executive branch, Congress, and the American public to rethink current plans to rebuild U.S. nuclear forces in the years ahead. 

Now is the time to reevaluate these plans before major budget decisions are locked-in. Acquisition programs are just getting off the ground and can be scaled back. The Obama administration is conducting an interagency review of long-term nuclear weapons modernization plans with a view toward finding needed savings.

A mock-up of a B61-12 gravity bomb awaits testing by engineers from Sandia National Laboratories in a wind tunnel at the Arnold Engineering Development Center in Tennessee on February 20. (NNSA)

The current nuclear shopping list is long. The Navy wants to buy 12 new ballistic missile submarines with a total production cost of about $100 billion. The Air Force is seeking up to 100 new, nuclear-capable strategic bombers that would cost about $80 billion, as well as land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles and new air-launched cruise missiles. The Energy Department’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) is pursuing a $60 billion plan to upgrade five nuclear warhead types, including the B61 gravity bomb.

The Navy and the Air Force say that planned budgets will not pay for these systems, and are seeking additional funds. It is not clear where that money would come from.

This report outlines common sense ways to save roughly $70 billion over the next decade across all three legs of the “triad” and the warheads they carry. The Pentagon can scale back or delay expensive new delivery systems and take a more disciplined approach to rebuilding nuclear warheads, as follows:

  • Scale-back plans to replace the existing fleet of Ohio-class nuclear-armed submarines by buying eight boats instead of twelve (saves $16 billion over ten years);
  • Delay plans for building new nuclear-capable bombers ($32 billion in savings);
  • Cancel the air-launched cruise missile ($3 billion in savings);
  • Scale-back the B61 bomb life extension program ($4 billion in savings);
  • Refurbish existing land-based ballistic missiles rather than build an entirely new system ($16 billion in savings).

Click to enlarge.The United States can save this money while still maintaining the triad of delivery systems and the number of nuclear warheads it plans to deploy under the 2010 New START Treaty by fielding warheads in a more cost-effective way. Additional nuclear stockpile cuts, such as those proposed by President Obama in 2013, would allow for more savings.

To address high priority and emerging threats, the United States does not have to break the congressional budget deal and increase defense spending. Instead, Washington can safely reduce spending on nuclear weapons and redirect funds to where they are needed most.

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