Charles Dharapak / AP

Why the US nuclear budget grows while the stockpile of warheads shrinks

Obama's plan to modernize and replace the nuclear arsenal will soon push nuclear weapons spending to Cold War levels

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.

It’s a common misconception that the declining stockpile of warheads means a corresponding decrease in costs, says Tariq Rauf, Director of the Disarmament and Arms Control program at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, which tracks nuclear programs across the globe. Not only is dismantling and decommissioning warheads expensive, but what’s left of the aging U.S. arsenal requires more maintenance, Rauf explains. “The military doesn’t want warheads on its planes and subs that have the possibility of accidental detonation,” he said. At the same time, the push for “modernized” hardware that can reliably and efficiently produce the explosive power that the military wants incurs new costs. “This is a complex technological challenge that costs a lot of money,” Rauf said.

Watchdog groups say the lack of transparency behind Obama's ambitious nuclear weapons spending is worrying. Except for an unprecedented data release on the nuclear stockpile in 2010, the government doesn't provide comprehensive budget estimates for its nuclear weapons programs. Instead, the budget for nuclear weapons spending is spread across two different departments, Defense and Energy, and it often overlaps with conventional military spending. A regular bomber, for example, can be “nuclear certified” to carry nuclear warheads, meaning that its cost might be hidden in the conventional military budget. In other cases, research and design programs for nuclear weapons modernization are classified and therefore don’t show up in spending estimates at all.

The Congressional Budget Office, a nonpartisan body that tracks government spending, has projected Obama's plans for the nuclear arsenal at $348 billion through 2024. But that time frame stops just before the modernization plan's costs are projected to spike, in the mid-to-late-2020's, said Lewis of the Monterey Institute. A recent study by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington D.C.-based think tank that works closely with the Pentagon, found that the actual cost could total $963 billion between 2014 and 2043. 

In short, the American public and even their representatives in Congress have very little idea how much these weapons will end up costing them. “If you’re a member of Congress, you can’t make informed decisions about need and affordability if you don’t know the current and projected costs of the things you're supposed to exercise oversight over,” said Kingston Reif, director for disarmament and threat reduction policy at the Arms Control Association. “Whether you think we need more or fewer or zero nuclear weapons, we ought to know from a good-government perspective how much this is going to cost.”

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