Ask a Scientist – November 2013
Z. Witmond of New York, NY, asks “How much does it cost to create a single nuclear weapon?” and is answered by Senior Scientist & Co-Director of the UCS Global Security Program Lisbeth Gronlund, Ph.D.
There isn’t a simple answer to this question, in part because government data on the costs associated with nuclear weapons are often inconsistent or incomplete. (The most authoritative publicly available information is from Atomic Audit, published in 1998.)
Nuclear weapons have two basic parts: the warhead or bomb, and the delivery system. The United States has bombs that can be delivered by aircraft and warheads that are deployed on air-launched cruise missiles and land-based and submarine-based long-range missiles. The Department of Energy (DOE) is responsible for building and maintaining the warheads and bombs, while the Department of Defense (DOD) takes care of the delivery systems.
The United States hasn’t built a new nuclear warhead or bomb since the 1990s, but it has refurbished several types in recent years to extend their lifetime. The DOE is currently refurbishing as many as 2,000 submarine-based W76 warheads at a cost of roughly $2 million each.
Next up for life extension is the B61 bomb. It will undergo much more extensive modifications than the W76, and the estimated price tag reflects this: It will cost $8 billion to $10 billion to refurbish 400 to 500 B61 bombs—about $20 million each.
The United States plans to replace its entire arsenal with a suite of five new weapon types over the next 25 to 30 years, violating the spirit if not the letter of President Obama’s 2010 pledge not to develop new nuclear warheads. Dubbed “3+2,” the plan would result in three weapon types for long-range missiles, and two for delivery by aircraft. One would be deployed on an air-launched cruise missile and one would be a bomb. Ultimately, the plan calls for some 3,000 of these new weapons at an estimated cost of $60 billion, or $20 million each. However, it likely will be cheaper to renovate the B61 than build one of these new weapons, so $60 billion probably underestimates the cost.
The delivery systems are more expensive: The Minuteman III land-based missiles, which carry one warhead, cost about $50 million each in today’s dollars. The DOD is modifying them to extend their lifetime at a cost of about $15 million each. Thus, the cost of each deployed land-based nuclear weapon would be roughly $85 million.
The DOD also is modifying Trident submarine-based missiles—which initially cost about $100 million each—to extend their lifetimes at a cost of about $140 million apiece.
The Navy’s plan is to replace 12 of its nuclear-armed submarines starting next decade, at a cost of some $8 billion each. Each new submarine would carry 16 Trident missiles that likely would have four warheads, for a total of 64 warheads per vessel. Thus, the total cost for each submarine-based nuclear warhead would be roughly $200 million.
The W80 warhead, meanwhile, is deployed on air-launched cruise missiles and would be delivered by B52 bombers. The cruise missiles cost roughly $1 million each. The bombers, which were built back in the 1950s at a cost of $650 million each in today’s dollars, can carry 12 cruise missiles—for a per warhead cost of $55 million. Adding in the cost of a new warhead would bring the total to $75 million per deployed weapon.
Finally, B61 and B83 bombs would be delivered by B2 bombers—the so-called stealth bomber. It cost some $80 billion to develop and build 21 of these planes, or $4 billion per B2 bomber, and the current life extension program will cost $10 billion. Each can carry up to 16 bombs, so the total cost of each deployed bomb would be roughly $270 million, taking into account its share of the bomber.
What does all this add up to? Assuming the DOE and DOD plans move forward, and the United States makes further modest reductions in its deployed and reserve arsenal (to a total of 3,000 weapons) the United States will spend some $250 billion on new nuclear warheads and delivery systems in the next few decades. That’s roughly equal to 30 years of federal funding for Head Start programs for kids at 2012 enrollment levels.
Dr. Gronlund’s research has focused on technical issues related to nuclear terrorism and fissile material controls, U.S. nuclear weapons policy and new nuclear weapons, space weapons, and ballistic missile defenses. She holds a Ph.D. in physics from Cornell University and is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Physical Society.