Exploding Budgets

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The government is set to spend $640 billion on nuclear weapons and related programs over the next ten years.

If you didn’t know that, you are not alone. No one has put together a reliable estimate of these future budgets – until now. A new report compiled by Ploughshares Fund, a global security foundation, is the first to aggregate all the programs and plans. Our calculations reveals a total cost of between $620 billion and $661 billion, or a median average of $640 billion.

The United States currently spends about $56 billion a year on these programs. As a result, America has the most powerful, modern, nuclear force in the world, dwarfing the arsenals of all other nations save Russia.

I recently sat in the cockpit of a B-52 bomber at Barksdale Air Force Base, La. The huge plane was built in 1961, but has been so carefully maintained and modernized that it seemed brand new. The crew (who, as is frequently noted, were all younger than the plane) was proud of their aircraft, their squadron and their mission. They fly what may be the best, most cost-effective, long-range bomber in the world. A B-52 can fly from its base and hours later steer a precision-guided bomb into the second window from the left of a terrorist headquarters.  Few would disagree that these funds were well spent.

As I stood in the plane’s bomb bay, the crew showed me the racks where the conventional bombs would slide out and the nuclear bombs slide in.  Although these bomber squadrons saw extensive service in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is difficult to envision a scenario that would require dropping dozens of nuclear weapons. Nonetheless, the crews train for this mission, and it is one of the reasons why the Air Force is planning to build a brand new bomber. It has budgeted $6.3 billion over the next five years to begin its design, with total costs yet unknown. A new air-launched nuclear cruise missile will also be ordered.

The nation may decide it needs this capability.  But does it need all the programs now on order? As Mark Thompson points out, these plans may be outdated:

Battleland has been asking military officials for years how much the U.S. nuclear arsenal has to shrink before continuing to invest in the triad’s subs, missiles and bombers no longer makes sense.

Yet, contracts are being signed and plans are being made to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on new nuclear weapons and programs. Procurement is racing ahead of policy. The Cold War has been over for 20 years, the public does not think much about nuclear weapons, our political leaders rarely talk about them, but the nuclear weapons complex still operates as if the Soviet Union still threatened us.

The Air Force, for example, is just finishing a $7 billion modernization of the Minuteman III, an intercontinental ballistic missile that can fly a hydrogen bomb around the globe in 30 minutes and drop it on an area the size of a football field. The current version has few parts remaining from the original missile, and is projected to be in good working order until at least 2030. The Air Force, however, has just added $10 million to this year’s budget to begin design of a replacement missile, a program that could ultimately cost tens of billions of dollars.

The Navy has the most modern nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines in the world. You don’t have to watch ABC’s new thriller, Last Resort, to understand that these 14 Trident class subs can carry up to 24 long-range missiles, each with four warheads on average, and each warhead eight to 40 times more powerful than the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima.

To make sure these subs can continue to have enough firepower to simultaneously destroy every major city on Earth, the Navy is modernizing the sub’s missiles at a cost of more than $4 billion. But the Navy is also designing a new submarine whose development and production will cost an estimated $90-110 billion. With operations and maintenance, and the Navy estimates it will cost $350 billion over the lifetime of the fleet.

The entire nuclear arsenal “is set to undergo the costliest overhaul in its history, even as the military faces spending cuts to its conventional arms programs at a time of fiscal crisis,” The Washington Post found in a two-part series in mid-September. These programs would keep our nuclear arsenal at current force levels for another five decades. Once locked in, they build constituent support, making cancelation politically difficult, even as costs double, or triple.

Adding to the triad’s costs are programs to rebuild thousands of existing nuclear warheads, missile defense programs that cost over $10 billion a year, a new controversial multi-billion plant to make plutonium fuel for reactors (even though no power company wants to buy these hot rods), and the billions that are spent each year on dealing with the problems caused by these weapons  (such as environmental clean up), security for nuclear material stockpiles here and in other nations, and planning for nuclear incidents.

The Bill, Please

If you ask the government how much we spend on these programs, they have no answer. Official accounts of nuclear spending are opaque and poorly defined. Partially, this is due to the sprawl of these programs over several departments, services and divisions. Partially, it is due to disagreement over what programs should be included. Partially, it is the consistently unreliable government budget projections.

Whatever the reason, this unaccountable spending is unacceptable in a world where military leaders agree that these Cold War weapons should take a back seat to the conventional forces we need now. It makes even less sense if one takes seriously that the official policy of the United States is to reduce the number of weapons in our nuclear arsenal and their role in national security strategy.

Before the Congressional debates over cuts to defense spending take off in November, taxpayers have a right to know how their national security money is being spent. Can we save money by shifting resources out of the nuclear programs? Several congressional leaders think so. Senator Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, says the nuclear budget “is ripe for cuts.” Rep. Adam Smith (D- Wash.), the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, says our nuclear policy is out of date and there are “clearly savings to be found.”

But how will they know where to cut without having a total picture of what we spend? The new study took a year of work and is the only existing projection of the total cost for nuclear weapons-related spending in the United States over the next 10 years.

Included in the estimate are all costs associated with nuclear weapons production, operation, maintenance, clean up, and defense, as well as the prevention of nuclear proliferation. The report includes an infographic depicting these various programs and their costs. Some programs, like those for environmental clean-up and securing weapon materials from terrorists, cannot be cut, even as force levels decline. But policy makers could realize substantial savings by cutting the nuclear force from today’s roughly 8,000 nuclear weapons, without sacrificing any benefits of the nuclear force.

Policy makers may well conclude that there are benefits to maintaining some level of nuclear weapons for the indefinite future. But it is very hard to imagine any military mission that requires the United States to drop 1,000 nuclear weapons on another nation Or 100. Or even 10. Yet we maintain an active stockpile of thousands of weapons and never bother to tally up the costs.

There are signs of hope. Just last month the Congress passed a continuing resolution that eliminated funding for a new plutonium-bomb factory at Los Alamos Nuclear Laboratory. Originally estimated to cost $400 million, its cost had exploding to almost $6 billion. All to churn out 60 to 80 new bomb cores a year for reasons no one could well define. Republicans heading the House Appropriations Committee and their Democratic counterparts in the Senate agreed with the Administration plan to delay this program for five years – effectively killing it. The Department of Energy is disbanding the design team and redirecting unspent funds.  An alternative building is in the works that can produce the few replacement plutonium cores that we actually need each year for closer to the original budget. Net savings: more than $5.5 billion.

There are many more ways we can keep our weapons safe and effective while cutting costs. New scrutiny is being focused on plans to overhaul 400 B-61 nuclear bombs. What was supposed to be a simple modernization has spiraled into a $10 billion boondoggle, giving a literal meaning to “gold-plating.” At an estimated cost of $28 million, each of these 700-pound bombs will be worth more than its weight in gold.

Congress will have a fierce debate over the defense budget when it returns after the election. Before our representatives eliminate vital programs that may force veterans to sacrifice well-earned benefits and soldiers, sailors and marines to forego needed supplies, bringing basic accountability and a little common sense to nuclear programs can eliminate cold war weapons we no longer need and shift budgets to those that we do.

Joe Cirincione is president of Ploughshares Fund and author of Bomb Scare: The History and Future of Nuclear Weapons.