If you simply tally the number of warheads, the United States’ nuclear stockpile looks like a shadow of what it once was. The number of warheads held by the U.S. peaked in 1967 at over 31,000, but has been steadily declining, mainly through a series of treaties with nuclear rival Russia. By February 2018, the deadline for the most recent treaty, the U.S. will have pared down its active strategic arsenal (warheads ready to launch) to 1,605, the lowest number since Dwight Eisenhower was president.
And yet, American taxpayers will soon be spending more on nuclear weapons in real dollars than they have since the end of the Cold War. In October 2013, just four months after calling for yet another one-third reduction in the stockpile, President Barack Obama announced plans to “modernize” the entire nuclear arsenal over the next 30 years, arguing that updating and replacing the so-called nuclear triad — the submarines, jets and ballistic missiles designed to deliver warheads — will help create a leaner, sleeker nuclear fleet. But leaner doesn’t mean cheaper, at least not in the short term. According to a recent study by two researchers at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, Jeffrey Lewis and Jon Wolfsthal, Obama’s modernization program could carry a price tag of over $1 trillion, vaulting nuclear weapons spending relative to the overall defense budget to a level comparable to the 1980s.