U.S. Nuclear-Weapons Plan Is So Expensive, It Can’t Be Implemented

nuclear-capable B-2 aircraft drops 500-pound bombs during a U.S.
Air Force exercise at a Nevada test range in 2007. Two
nuclear-weapon analysts assert that today’s $1 trillion plans to
modernize U.S. bombers, missiles and submarines are
unaffordable.(Ethan Miller/Getty

The U.S. plan for
modernizing the nation’s nuclear arsenal is so expensive that it
cannot be implemented, the authors of a new study

“It’s just not real,” Jeffrey Lewis,
one of the report’s co-authors, said in reference to the current
U.S. modernization blueprint. “It’s inconceivable to me that we
will execute anything like the plan that they say they’re going to

The analysis, released on Tuesday by the
James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, says the strategy
to update the U.S. triad of nuclear-armed bomber aircraft,
submarines and ground-based missiles would cost $1 trillion over
the next 30 years, even under conservative assumptions.

The estimate relies largely on official government
figures, the authors say, and does not include costs associated
missile defense, nonproliferation efforts and related intelligence

Instead, it includes only the cost of maintaining the
current U.S. nuclear arsenal, buying replacement systems and
upgrading bombs and warheads, as called for by the current plan.
Major cost drivers of the $1 trillion plan include a new Long-Range
Strike bomber, which the report projects will cost $55-100 billion,
and Ohio-class replacement submarines, which the study says could
cost $77-102 billion.

Among the more
controversial items on the modernization agenda are plans to
upgrade B-61 gravity bombs stationed in Europe, create a new
Long-Range Standoff Cruise missile, and develop a series of new,
interoperable warheads capable of replacing multiple weapons now in
the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

Given current budget
constraints, implementing all of these plans simultaneously is so
unrealistic that attempting it would likely backfire and cause
major projects to be canceled midstream, said Lewis, speaking
during the study’s Tuesday public roll-out. Doing nothing to inject
realism into the plans in the near term could ultimately leave
aging weapons without replacements, Lewis forecasted.

“I do not support unilateral nuclear disarmament, but if I
did, [I’d recommend that we] just keep doing exactly what we’re
doing,” Lewis said. “We might really end up with this tiny little
denuded force that was developed with no particular strategic
thought in mind.

“The example I think of is —
we’re talking about spending $10-12 billion on the B-61 [bomb] at
this moment, at the very time the Air Force is making all kinds of
signals that it will not make nuclear-capable the F-35” Joint
Strike Fighter or nuclear-certify from the outset the planned new
Long-Range Strike bomber, Lewis added. “So, we’ll spend $12 billion
on a bomb that won’t have an airplane to drop it.”

Lewis and co-author Jon Wolfsthal, both CNS issue experts,
said the purpose of the study was to encourage policymakers to
consider the full cost of the current plan, so that it can be
ultimately amended based on strategic goals that fit within
realistic financial constraints.

The report’s
sole recommendation is that Congress require the White House Office
of Management and Budget — along with the Energy and Defense
departments — “to annually produce an integrated nuclear
deterrence budget” that projects the full cost of each system in
the U.S. nuclear arsenal over its operational lifetime.

The nonpartisan Government Accountability Office has
issued findings that support the idea that Congress and the
executive branch do not fully understand the lifetime costs of the
current modernization plan, according to the CNS report.

A 2005 GAO assessment demonstrated that “the United States
does not know with any accuracy how much it spends annually on its
nuclear deterrent, or how much it will cost to replace the current
triad,” the CNS report notes.

“The longest-range
estimates for the nuclear mission produced by the administration
were in 2010 and contained about $214 billion in spending over the
fiscal 2011-20 period, but the report omitted significant costs,
and the estimate period ends just before the substantial
procurement bills come due,” the new study contends.

Congressional sources have suggested that budget realities
might be causing the Obama administration to back away from certain
aspects of the modernization plan, potentially to include concepts
for developing interoperable warheads.

Officially, however, the White House has stood by the
plan, objecting to a provision in the fiscal 2014 defense
authorization law that requires a study on whether it would be
cheaper to simply refurbish existing warheads.

Other issues — such as whether ground-based ballistic
missiles are as important in the post-Cold War era as
harder-to-detect missile-carrying submarines — should also be
discussed, Lewis and Wolfsthal suggested.

acknowledged, however, that eliminating ICBMs entirely would be
politically difficult, given the staunch support they receive from
lawmakers representing the Western states where they are

“The problem,” according to Lewis, “is
that at this particular moment there is a lack of courage on the
part of the White House and excessive partisanship in Congress. The
president stands up in Berlin and talks about negotiating an
additional reduction with the Russians to go down to 1,000 deployed
warheads and he’s immediately condemned for supporting what amounts
to unilateral disarmament.

“What strikes me as
one of the central findings of this report is we will be lucky to
be at 1,000 warheads by 2030,” Lewis contended. “What we’re trying
to do is to get people to look realistically at what the levels of
budgetary authority are going to be and then have this

This article was published in Global Security
, which is produced independently by National
Journal Group under contract with the Nuclear Threat Initiative.
NTI is a nonprofit, nonpartisan group working to reduce global
threats from nuclear, biological, and chemical

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