National Security

Published — December 24, 2013 Updated — May 19, 2014 at 12:19 pm ET

Obama administration understated nuclear weapons costs

Estimate undershot by more than $140 billion


The Obama administration’s plan for maintaining and upgrading the U.S. nuclear arsenal will likely cost around 66 percent more over the next decade than senior Pentagon officials have predicted, according to a new assessment by the independent Congressional Budget Office.

Under the administration’s plan, operating, maintaining and upgrading the nuclear stockpile will cost a total of $355 billion from 2014 through 2023, said the CBO report, published just before the holidays and shortly after Congress finished action on a 2014 budget bill that restored some planned Pentagon spending cuts.

A Trident II, D-5 missile is launched from the submerged submarine USS Tennessee in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Florida. AP

James Miller, the Pentagon’s outgoing policy chief, had said in 2011 congressional testimony that the 10-year tab would be around $214 billion, or an average of $21 billion a year, an amount he pegged at around 3 percent of the Pentagon’s likely overall budget for that period.

His boss at the time, Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, cited an even lower yearly total when he told a security conference in Colorado last summer that nuclear weapons are “just not that expensive.”

Carter’s remarks ignited substantial controversy, including criticism from anti-nuclear activists as well as challenges from military budget experts. The squabble stemmed in part from the fact that the federal budget has no consolidated nuclear weapons spending category, and instead lists discrete tallies for related programs in the energy and defense departments.

Congress requested the budget office report to help settle the squabble, and the office’s analysts began by hunting down all the discrete listings. They also projected spending into the future, using Pentagon estimates wherever possible, and studied historical cost growth data to predict how much the total spending might grow beyond current estimates.

The $355 billion estimate is thus based not only on a higher calculation of what the government is spending now but also on a projection that unforeseen technical problems or mismanagement will cause costs to grow by an extra $59 billion.

The $355 billion tally, moreover, still does not reflect the full panoply of costs associated with having a robust nuclear arsenal, according to the CBO. It projected that “other nuclear-related costs” — a category not mentioned by Pentagon officials that includes environmental cleanup efforts, arms control-related work, and a system of defenses against nuclear attack — will likely cost the government an additional $215 billion over the next decade.

That makes a grand total of $570 billion. All of these programs are meant to persist for more than 10 years, of course, which means that nuclear weapons-related spending during the next 30 years or so could easily approach $1 trillion.

“Nuclear weapons aren’t cheap as some high-ranking Pentagon officials have suggested,” said Kingston Reif, Director of Nuclear Non-Proliferation at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, an advocacy group in Washington. He said that unless the Obama administration scales back its plans in line with current budget realities, the result will be “nuclear disarmament by financial default” instead of a more careful reshaping of the U.S. nuclear posture.

Of the $241 billion needed solely for nuclear delivery systems — such as missiles and bombers — and warheads, the CBO said that $152 billion will be spent to maintain existing systems. Under the administration’s ambitious modernization plans, another $89 billion will be needed to replace them.

Although the overall federal budget is shrinking, these plans would require annual nuclear weapons-related spending to increase by as much as 60 percent over the period, the report said.

The lion’s share of the costs over the next decade — $82 billion — will be borne by the U.S. ballistic missile submarine program, which is about to undergo a costly modernization. Strategic bombers, which also are slated for an upgrade, will cost $40 billion.

Keeping the Energy Department’s nuclear weapons-related laboratories humming over this period will cost $77 billion. Programs related to nuclear weapons command and early warning will cost $56 billion. None of these individual tallies includes the cost growth that CBO analysts projected.

The CBO report cautioned that eliminating some of the programs, or even a category of nuclear weapons, would not produce savings equivalent to what’s now being spent, since compensatory measures would likely have to be taken. It made no specific recommendations, but noted that simply deferring some of the nuclear weapons modernization efforts — to fit current budget limits — instead of cancelling them outright will likely make them more costly in the long run.

When Miller, who is slated to retire in January, was asked at the Nov. 2011 House Armed Services committee hearing about claims that nuclear weapons-related spending over the next decade could be as high as $600 billion, he said, “suffice it to say there was double counting and some rather curious arithmetic involved.”

But that’s pretty much where the CBO came out.

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