While much of the United States was preparing for the holidays, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) released a 25-page report outlining the expected cost to modernize U.S. nuclear weapons over the next decade. The 10-year cost of refurbishing nuclear warheads, replacing delivery vehicles, and maintaining and expanding the laboratory infrastructure to support the nuclear arsenal is a colossal $355 billion. Another recent assessment by the Monterey Institute of International Studies pegged the 30-year cost at $1 trillion.
The timing of the CBO report did not afford it the kind of press attention it deserved. Considering CBO’s estimate reflects the initial cost and not the total cost of nuclear modernization, the United States should be informed on options to reduce the cost of nuclear modernization.
The U.S. will continue the “nuclear triad” of delivery systems – Intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM), ballistic missile submarines, and strategic bombers. The Defense Department and Energy Department’s activities will develop new delivery systems and warheads for all three legs of the triad. The report shows $82 billion to replace the Ohio-class submarine, $40 billion to maintain and replace the long range bomber fleet, $24 billion to build a new class of ICBMs, and $7 billion to modernize tactical weapons such as the B61 gravity bomb.
The $355 billion figure is roughly $150 billion more than the administration’s $208 billion, 10-year estimate delivered to Congress last year. However, the time frame of CBO’s report stops short of what nuclear weapon analysts call the “modernization mountain,” the period beginning in 2024 when the costs will steeply increase. From 2025, the United States is expected to spend roughly $33 billion on modernization; on top of the $31 billion the U.S. already spends sustaining the arsenal each year.
Congress and the U.S. public need to understand and acknowledge that there are other options to pursue. Otherwise, taxpayers will end up footing the bill for a full-scale nuclear modernization in a post-Cold War era when the utility of some nuclear weapons systems is questionable.
There are two initiatives the Obama administration should implement right away. In addition, there are three alternatives the U.S. Congress should consider which could save up to $55 billion dollars on nuclear modernization.
The administration should issue a directive for full annual reports on nuclear modernization costs, as well as a life-cycle budget report of each weapon system to be modernized. This should happen as soon as possible to keep the nation informed. Additionally, Congress should consider reducing the scope of certain modernization programs because our current plans are unsustainable.
The National Nuclear Security Administration, the organization responsible for maintaining nuclear weapons, is in the process of extending the life of 400 of the B61 nuclear gravity bombs. Half of the bombs are stationed in Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey, but European political leaders are voicing a growing sentiment to remove the bombs. The estimated cost for the B61 doubled between 2010 and 2012, from roughly $4 billion to $8 billion; the CBO report now puts the cost closer to $12 billion. This would amount to $30 million per bomb, making it the most expensive U.S. nuclear weapon ever.
The U.S. should pursue a cheaper option called “Triple-Alt,” to extend the life of about 250 of the B61-7 bombs for another ten years, and retire the other three B61 versions including two versions stationed in Europe. A smaller scope for B61 modernization would save an estimated $5 billion.
Congress should also consider reducing the number of Ohio-replacement class submarines from the planned 12, to eight boats. The submarine replacement is the most expensive nuclear modernization program the U.S. is pursuing. While the submarine leg of the nuclear triad is important for deterrence, there is money to be saved. A smaller fleet of boats could deploy the same number of warheads by increasing the number of warheads per missile, and increasing the number of missiles per boat. Building a smaller fleet would save $16 billion.
Finally, in an earlier report, CBO recommended delaying the Long-Range Strike Bomber to the mid-2020s which is when the current strategic bombers will be retired. Delaying production of the new bomber would allow the incorporation of new technological advances and save $32 billion.
It is time for Congress to consider our options, save the taxpayers billions of dollars and field a nuclear triad suited for the 21st century, not the Cold War.
Eric Tamerlani is a program assistant for nuclear disarmament at the Friends Committee on National Legislation.