The Sky’s the Limit on Nuclear Weapons Spending, But What Does It Really Get Us?

August 2, 2023 | 12:11 pm
Mackenzie Marco/Unsplash
Eryn MacDonald
Global Security Analyst

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has released a new report on the projected cost of US nuclear weapons over the next ten years, from 2023 to 2032.

Before even reading the first line, I could have predicted two things about this report.

First, projected costs have risen considerably since the CBO released its previous report on this issue two years ago. This is par for the course for military programs in general (perhaps it might be less predictable if the Department of Defense ever managed to pass an audit—a routine requirement for every other part of government) and nuclear weapons are certainly no exception. And secondly, these costs are far higher than is necessary and do nothing to address the needs of most Americans for true human security. These lie in areas like food, housing, healthcare, or gun violence, none of which are improved by spending hundreds of billions on nuclear weapons each year.

To get to the actual numbers, CBO estimates that if the Department of Defense (DOD) and Department of Energy (DOE) carry out their current plans for nuclear forces, it will cost $756 billion from 2023 to 2032—just over $75 billion per year. This is 19% ($122 billion) higher than its previous estimate of $634 billion for the period from 2021-2030. Roughly half of this increase, about $60 billion, is unavoidable: some programs have progressed to more expensive stages of development and production since the last report—this accounts for about $34 billion—while inflation accounts for about $26 billion. But the remainder, $62 billion, is attributable to increases in program budget estimates ($49 billion) and the CBO’s estimate of additional costs based on historical cost growth ($13 billion).

About two-thirds of the increased costs fall under DOD. These are mostly due to increased budget estimates for the new Sentinel intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) program and for ballistic missile submarines. In other words, DOD, true to form, underestimated the cost of these programs and has now had to face the reality that they will cost much more than anticipated.

Historical cost growth is the norm

Of CBO’s $756 billion projection, a remarkable $96 billion, or 13 percent, comes from their assumption that current DOD and DOE budget estimates are well below what the actual costs of the nuclear weapons now in development will turn out to be. Historically, this has certainly been true, with both agencies frequently underestimating final program costs, often by significant amounts. For example, since the previous version of this CBO report, DOD has increased its estimate for the total cost of the new Sentinel ICBM by $12 billion. In its report, CBO projects the final costs will rise even more.

In another glaring example of how out of control spending on nuclear weapons programs can get, the General Accounting Office (GAO) in January 2023 found that the National Nuclear Security Administration’s (NNSA’s) plans to develop the capacity to produce at least 80 plutonium pits (the explosive core of modern nuclear weapons) per year at two sites—Savannah River Site and Los Alamos National Laboratory—by 2030 “do not follow best practices and run the risk of cost increases and delays” and that “NNSA lacks both a comprehensive cost estimate and a schedule outlining all activities it needs to achieve this capability.”

The NNSA itself acknowledges that the project cannot be completed on the planned timeline or budget. An internal NNSA document puts the cost for producing 80 pits per year between $8.7 and $16.5 billion, a significant increase over the previous public estimate of $6.9 to $11.1 billion. It also says that the Savannah River Site plant, far from meeting a congressionally mandated deadline to produce at least 50 pits per year by 2030, will not produce any pits at all until 2036.

While it might seem that delays and overruns at this level are unusual, in reality, they are just the most recent in a long history of wasteful spending on nuclear weapons programs. In fact, the plan to produce pits at Savannah River developed after the NNSA project previously planned for the site, the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility, was abandoned following years of delays and cost overruns. By the time it was shut down, NNSA had already spent nearly $8 billion on the facility and estimated that it would need another nearly $50 billion to complete the project.

Unfortunately, similar examples of wasteful spending at both NNSA and DOD are all too easy to find.

Deceptive decrease on the SLCM-N

One category in which projected costs appear to decrease in this report is Tactical Nuclear Delivery Systems and Weapons, which sees a drop of $11 billion. This is deceptive, however, because it comes from eliminating any spending on the new nuclear-armed sea-launched cruise missile (SLCM-N). This is due to the recommendation in the 2022 Nuclear Posture Review that the program be canceled and the fact that the president’s FY 2023 budget request did not include any funding for it.

However, as the CBO report notes, “the ultimate status of the SLCM-N is unclear.” Even though President Biden wanted to cancel the program, the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) passed by the Democratically-controlled Congress last year included $25 million for DOD to begin work on the cruise missile and $20 million for NNSA to start on the nuclear warhead—known as the W80-4 ALT—that the cruise missile would carry. And while the president’s FY24 budget request again zeroed out SLCM-N funding, Congress so far looks like it will once again add funds in the FY24 NDAA. The Senate and House versions of the bill both include $190 million for the SCLM-N missile and $75 million (in the Senate) or $70 million (in the House) for its warhead.

If the SLCM-N program does go forward and begin in 2024, CBO estimates that it will still cost about $10 billion over the 2023-2032 time period.

The trend is clearly upward

The FY 2013 NDAA required CBO to estimate the 10-year cost of operating, maintaining, and modernizing US nuclear forces. This resulted in the first such report, covering the years 2014 to 2023. The FY 2015 NDAA then required CBO to update that report every two years. The current report is the fifth update in the series. The goal of these reports is to help Congress to make better-informed decisions about spending on nuclear weapons programs.

Over the course of these updates, nuclear weapons spending has increased substantially. The report covering 2014 to 2023 projects $355 billion in spending over this period—almost $36 billion per year—while the current report projects $756 billion—almost $76 billion per year. This means that spending on nuclear weapons has increased from 3.6 percent of defense funding in 2014 to 6.5 percent in 2023 and is projected to reach a peak of about 8.5 percent in 2031 before decreasing slightly. Although part of this increase is expected and due to programs progressing from early planning stages to the more expensive production and procurement phases as time moves on, CBO estimates that this accounts for around 50-55 percent of the increase in each report. The remainder is due to changes in program plans and budgets, and the overall trend is clear—ever upward.

The sky’s the limit?

Discouragingly, this trend may be about to get worse. If the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) between the US and Russia expires in 2026 without a replacement (which now seems like a best-case scenario, given Russia’s announcement in February 2023 that it is suspending the treaty and the US decision to halt data exchanges in response), it is anyone’s guess what the effect on plans for the US nuclear arsenal will be.

The New START treaty limits Russia and the US to 800 total deployed and nondeployed strategic delivery vehicles (intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and strategic bombers), 700 deployed strategic delivery vehicles, and 1,550 deployed warheads. Without these limits either country, or both, could decide to undertake a new nuclear arms buildup. Given the deterioration of the US-Russia relationship, exacerbated by Russia’s ongoing war on Ukraine, and increasingly alarmist rhetoric among some influential portions of the US nuclear weapons and defense establishment about China’s nuclear weapons program, this possibility is more than abstract.

In 2020, with the deadline for extending New START from its original expiration date of February 2021 to 2026 fast approaching, CBO carried out an analysis of the potential costs for a range of US reactions if the treaty became defunct. At the low end ($0.1 billion), the US would simply upload existing non-deployed warheads onto existing ICBMs and SLBMs to reach their maximum capacity, without adding delivery systems. At the high end, the US would expand its arsenal to deploy 6,000 total warheads on up to 1,600 strategic delivery vehicles at up to $439 billion for acquisition and from $24 to $28 billion per year in operations and sustainment costs. Presumably, these costs have not decreased in the last three years, and more likely have increased significantly.

Holding the line, avoiding an arms race

It is difficult to describe the current situation as anything other than dire. Russia’s use of nuclear threats in the Ukraine war, along with a growing tendency in the US to categorize China as another peer competitor in the nuclear realm, has led to a renewed emphasis on nuclear weapons as central to US national security. This is despite the fact that these weapons are no more useful for military purposes than they have ever been, and do not address much more pressing human security needs. We must continue to urge the Biden administration and Congress not to buy into the dangerous idea that the US has no choice but to rely on nuclear weapons for security, and instead to hold the line against a new arms race.