Cost of Nuclear Weapons Program in Dispute

By November 8, 2011

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.

Categories: Secrecy