Are New Nuclear Weapons Affordable?

The astronomical funding required to replicate our Cold War arsenal does not square with the security threats in today's world. Nor will our conventional forces be able to withstand the cuts necessitated by the price burden of these nuclear delivery systems.
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A stunning new report from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) shows that the government will spend $355 billion over the next 10 years directly on nuclear weapons. And that's just the tip of the iceberg. The CBO estimate does not show the final price of all the new nuclear missiles, submarines, and bombers that the Pentagon wants to buy. The total cost could be more than $1 trillion over the next few decades.

As the CBO report notes, at the beginning of the next decade nuclear costs will be "roughly 60 percent higher" than this year's budget. "Annual costs are likely to continue to grow after 2023," says the CBO, "as production begins on replacement systems."

Here's one example of how the nuclear weapons budget is about to explode. The U.S. Navy plans to replace its current fleet of 14 ballistic-missile submarines (which collectively deploy half of the U.S. strategic arsenal) with 12 new submarines at the rate of one boat per year between 2031 and 2044. The CBO estimated in a previous report that the Navy's plans will consume at least 25 percent of its entire shipbuilding budget, crowding out new ships for conventional missions.

Cost estimates for the new fleet have soared in just four years. In 2010, the Navy issued plans for the new class of submarine -- the SSBN(X) -- estimating that the first boat off the line would cost $7 billion. By 2013, the Navy's estimate grew to $12 billion for the first submarine, though the CBO estimated it would actually cost $13 billion, with an average cost of $7.2 billion per boat. In total, it will cost about $100 billion just to develop and build the subs. The total cost to build, outfit, and operate this new fleet over its expected lifetime will be $350 billion.

It is not just the money that we need to worry about. The Navy will be forced to cut its surface fleet in order to afford the new nuclear subs. The Navy will not reach its goal of 300 ships if it buys all the subs, warns Vice Admiral William Burke, Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Warfare Systems. "In fact, we'll find ourselves closer to 250," he says. "At these numbers, our global presence will be reduced such that we'll only be able to visit some areas of the world episodically."

If the SSBN(X) project is completed as planned, in 2040 U.S. Navy submarines could deploy more than 900 nuclear warheads. It is not at all clear why. A rationale for this military capability has not been presented to Congress. Nor did President Obama explain how this force fits with the April 2010 Nuclear Posture Review plan to take concrete steps towards a world without nuclear weapons "by reducing the number of nuclear weapons and their role in U.S. national security strategy."

As for the other legs of the nuclear triad, contracts are beginning to flow to support plans for a new class of land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles and a new strategic nuclear bomber. The Minuteman III missile -- of which the United States has 450 -- is about to complete a $7 billion upgrade to extend its service life to 2030. Still, the Air Force wants a new missile fleet, which could cost up to $50 billion.

Wait, there's more. Congress last year approved almost $300 million in contracts for development of a new heavy bomber. The Air Force wants another $5 billion over the next four years to lock in the weapon system. Early estimates are that the new bomber will cost upward of $55 billion to develop and procure.

The Air Force also plans to develop a nuclear-armed cruise missile for the bombers, and that baby could cost up to $30 billion to produce, says Tom Collina of the Arms Control Association. "We no longer need a bomber with stand off nuclear missiles like the ALCM that are shot from afar," he says. But the Air Force has fast tracked the program.

How much will all these weapons cost? Sadly, we don't really know. There are no truly reliable cost estimates yet for these new weapon systems. The administration refuses to produce a complete cost estimate for these weapons. "The looming procurement costs for replacement systems could drive the 30-year price tag of the nuclear deterrent in the United States to about $1 trillion," says analyst Jon Wolfsthal of the Monterey Institute of International Studies.

The astronomical funding required to replicate our Cold War arsenal does not square with the security threats in today's world. Nor will our conventional forces be able to withstand the cuts necessitated by the price burden of these nuclear delivery systems.

Procurement is racing ahead of policy. Do we need these new nukes? Can we do with fewer? Simply delaying these programs and scaling them back modestly could yield $60 billion in savings over the next 10 years, experts say. Deeper cuts would yield larger savings.

Lavishing funds on obsolete weapons designed to fight the Soviets robs our troops of the resources they need to fight terrorists. Policy makers need to reevaluate their spending plans on nuclear forces in the coming years to reflect today's budgetary constraints and the diminishing utility of nuclear weapons in U.S. defense policy.

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