Cost of Nuclear Weapons Program in Dispute

In the last few weeks, members of Congress have presented radically different estimates of the cost of the U.S. nuclear weapons program.  The disparate estimates, which vary by hundreds of billions of dollars, reflect a lack of consensus about how to properly assess the cost of nuclear weapons.

“The U.S. will spend an estimated $700 billion on nuclear weapons and related programs over the next ten years,” according to an October 11 press release from Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA).  Citing that estimate, which was based on an analysis by the Ploughshares Fund, Markey and 64 other Democratic members wrote to the Super Committee on Deficit Reduction to propose a cut of $200 million in spending on nuclear weapons.

But Rep. Mike Turner (R-OH) said last week that the entire nuclear weapons budget for the next ten years is only about $214 billion.  He said that the cuts proposed by Democrats would therefore “amount to unilateral and immediate nuclear disarmament by the United States” with “catastrophic impacts to our national security and global stability.”

In his own letter to the Super Committee, Rep. Turner, chair of a House Armed Services Subcommittee, cited November 2 testimony from Administration officials including Thomas D’Agostino of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), who said that “The 1251 report [on nuclear force structure] makes clear that the total for the Department of Defense and NNSA will cost approximately $200 billion over the next 10 years, not the $600 billion or so that some are claiming.”

That seemingly authoritative statement might have settled the issue — but it did not, according to Stephen I. Schwartz of the Monterey Institute of International Studies.

“Here’s the fundamental problem: No one in the government knows exactly how much has been spent or continues to be spent on nuclear weapons because there is not and has never been a unified, comprehensive budget to monitor all their costs across departments and agencies and over time,” said Mr. Schwartz, an author of several studies on nuclear weapons spending.

The nominal budget for nuclear weapons, said Mr. Schwartz, “excludes a number of very expensive and critical programs that make the nuclear arsenal usable, including overhead and support costs; most research and development costs for delivery systems and support equipment; all costs for tactical nuclear weapons; airlift and sealift costs for strategic and tactical nuclear weapons programs; most centralized command, control, communications programs associated with nuclear weapons; all intelligence programs that support the nuclear weapons mission; and some training costs.”

To remedy the ambiguity in nuclear budgeting, Mr. Schwartz proposed that Congress enact a new framework for financial transparency and accountability in the nuclear weapons program.  In principle, he said, such a framework should appeal to political leaders and analysts of all persuasions.

“If Congress (and the interested public) had a clear understanding of what it costs to sustain the nuclear arsenal, or of, for example, the annual expenditures required to secure vulnerable nuclear materials in the United States and overseas, we could have a rational and logical discussion about the costs and benefits of these programs.”

“Unfortunately, we do not, which means that rhetoric and assumptions will most likely replace facts when it comes to making important decisions about the future of US nuclear security spending,” he wrote in a recent paper.  See “Building Budgetary Transparency and Accountability for the US Nuclear Weapons Program” by Stephen I. Schwartz, September 8, 2011.

4 Responses to “Cost of Nuclear Weapons Program in Dispute”

  1. Peter Hockley November 11, 2011 at 10:41 PM #

    My experience and understanding of the Military Industrial Complex would just grab the high figure out of the air, the lower estimate is for which they are willing to settle.
    Cynical old me!

  2. Adam Neira November 15, 2011 at 8:35 AM #

    Whatever the exact cost of the US nuclear arsenal it is too high. After a successfuk NPT conference in Jerusalem on April 23rd, 2012 with all other nations in attendance a twelve year track for nuclear disarmament should be agreed on and followed. A “Committee to Oversee the Dismantlement of Nuclear Weapons by 2025″ should be established. The IAEA would be boosted in manpower to facilitate the plan. Even if its budget becomes $5 Billion p.a., with all nations contributing, it will be worth it. This overarching global “Peace Initiative” becomes the fulcrum/umbrella/pivot/template from which other international co-operation and trust building moves are made.

  3. Eric Eaton November 23, 2011 at 12:41 AM #

    Funny that the budget estimate of $700 billion dollars came from Ploughshares, an organization that advocates massive disarmament and people have used the Ploughshares name to damage government property. I highly doubt that their figure is unbiased and accurate…not to say that the NNSA is more accurate. There are other figures to consider such as the cost of manpower to secure, maintain, and operate the systems.

    The government has very little understanding of what to do with these weapons. Negotiations with the Russians have been difficult because of agreements on numbers–usually between 1,500 and 1,750 warheads. However, any agreement would mean equal warheads because the next largest nuclear arsenal after the U.S. is France at 300.

    Finally, nuclear disarmament is unrealistic. Once a weapon is created it is difficult to uncreate it. Mines are still used, chemical weapons are still developed, and biological weapons are still developed. A smart, nuclear deterent provides defensive protection, not offensive capabilities. Furthermore, the argument that if the U.S. disarmed, then other nations would disarm is ignorant. USSR was the only “enemy” of the U.S. to develop weapons. England (armed), France (armed), Germany (capable), and Japan (capable) are allies. China built them in response to the USSR. India and Pakistan built them because of each other. South Africa build them because of Angola. Brazil and Argentina developed infrastructure because of each other. North Korea built them in the 2000′s even though the U.S. denuclearized the Peninsula in 91-92. Israel may have them because so many people have tried to eliminate the Jews. Nuclear weapons are a reality as much as knives, guns, and bullets.

  4. Roshan Riven November 23, 2011 at 12:29 PM #

    What Mr. Schwartz says is practically correct. The United States can’t go on maintaining its extensive nuclear weapons for the sake of national security. It already has enough to cause massive destruction to its enemies. Rather my opinion is that it should contain its financial situation and should cut its defence budget so as to sustain its economic supremacy because it was its robust economy that helped US to become a superpower in all aspects.