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U.S. Nuclear Weapons Budget: An Overview

Center for Nonproliferation Studies

Summary

The United States maintains a large and diverse nuclear arsenal to deter potential adversaries and to assure U.S. allies and other security partners. The United States will spend at least $179 billion over the nine fiscal years of 2010-2018 on its nuclear arsenal, averaging $20 billion per year, with costs increasing from $16 billion to $25 billion per year over that timeframe. This estimate by no means, however, includes the full costs of maintaining America's nuclear deterrent. The $179 billion includes most of the direct costs of nuclear weapons and strategic launchers, such as missiles and submarines, as well as a majority of the costs of military personnel responsible for maintaining, operating, and executing nuclear missions. This estimate, however, excludes many other essential functions directly related to nuclear operations, because those numbers are not readily identified in current budget documents. Moreover, these costs include no money for the eventual retirement of these systems, or support for veteran pensions or healthcare.

Due to the aging of the current force and plans to replace each leg of the nuclear triad – land and submarine-based missiles and bomber delivered nuclear weapons - costs for the nuclear mission are expected to grow substantially to approximately $500 billion over the next 20 years.

The United States Does Not Provide Information on the Costs of Maintaining Its Nuclear Deterrent

In 2005, the Government Accountability Office reported [1] that even the Department of Defense itself did not know precisely how much the nuclear mission costs. At present, there is no Congressional requirement that a stand-alone nuclear budget be developed. The Administration does not produce such an accounting, and no single budget account contains all known or expected nuclear-related costs.

It is possible to estimate some of the costs of maintaining the nuclear deterrent by piecing together information from the budgets of the Department of Defense and the Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration, as well as from Congressional testimony. Based on this data, it is estimated that in the nine-year period from FY2010-2018 (for which the U.S. Government has provided well-defined cost projections), the United States will spend at least $179 billion to maintain the current nuclear triad of missiles, bombers, submarines, and associated nuclear weapons, and to begin the process of developing their next generation replacements.

  • NNSA Weapons Activities includes the facilities, warhead maintenance, infrastructure, personnel, research & development projects, and physical components required to ensure the U.S. nuclear arsenal is safe, secure, and effective. Includes current projected costs for warhead Life Extension Programs.
  • NNSA Naval Reactors includes operations & maintenance and research & development costs for all Navy nuclear reactors. Overlap in reactor costs is present for carriers and other submarines.
  • Ohio-class SSBNs includes procurement, research & development, operations & maintenance, and military personnel costs of the Ohio-class SSBN, as well as the Life Extension Program of the Trident II D-5 submarine-launched ballistic missile.
  • B-2 and B-52 Bombers includes procurement, research & development, operations & maintenance, and military personnel costs of B-2 and B-52 squadrons, as well as the Life Extension Program of the air-launched cruise missile (ALCM).
  • Minuteman III ICBMs includes procurement, research & development, operations & maintenance, and military personnel costs of the ICBM squadrons. The initial costs of the follow-on ICBM are included in the current Minuteman portion.
  • Replacement: SSBN(X) includes research and development costs of the follow-on to the Ohio-class SSBN, as well as initial procurement funding for the first submarine. The two programs currently being funded develop the new submarine hull and its propulsion system. SSBNs are the submarines used to launch nuclear missiles.
  • Replacement: LRS-Bomber includes research and development costs of the follow-on to the current heavy bomber squadrons, the Long Range Strike-Bomber, as well as the replacement for the ALCM, the Long Range Standoff Weapon (LRSO).


Complete Data Not Available

All facets of the U.S. nuclear arsenal – the warheads, the missiles and the bombers on which they are deployed – are undergoing constant maintenance and extensive modernization. Cost estimates are available for the majority of hardware procurement and research and development (R&D) programs for the existing and possible replacement nuclear forces. However, most of the expected R&D and procurement costs for follow-on bombers, missiles and submarines are planned to take place after 2018.

Therefore, the data in the chart above represents only a fraction of the full costs of maintaining the nuclear deterrent. Other studies estimate that those costs may total $50 billion or more per year. [2] Additionally, this fact sheet includes only definable costs, and does not include many of the support costs associated with command, control, communications, and intelligence; missile defense; environmental management; decommissioning costs; and other support missions that cannot be explained without their link to nuclear deterrence. Combined, these are estimated to account for tens of billions of dollars more per year. [3]

Costs Likely to Grow

The costs for the nuclear mission are expected to grow substantially over the next 20 years if each leg of the nuclear triad is modernized to replace existing nuclear systems (i.e., launchers, missiles, and bombers). Decisions are currently being made on which systems to replace and in what numbers, and preliminary estimates [4] suggest spending will increase to more than $25-30 billion per year for maintenance and procurement, not including many of the associated costs to maintain the nuclear arsenal.

The Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS) intends to publish a comprehensive study in Fall 2013 estimating the costs for the entire nuclear deterrent over the next 30 years.

Sources:
[1] GAO, "Actions Needed by DOD to More Clearly Identify New Triad Spending and Develop a Long-Term Investment Approach," www.gao.gov.
[2] Stephen Schwartz and Deepti Choubey, "Nuclear Security Spending: Assessing Costs, Examining Priorities," Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2009, http://carnegieendowment.org.
[3] Stephen Schwartz and Deepti Choubey, "Nuclear Security Spending: Assessing Costs, Examining Priorities," Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2009, http://carnegieendowment.org.
[4] Lawrence Korb, "The United States Should Reduce Its Nuclear Arsenal," http://thinkprogress.org; U.S. Nuclear Modernization Programs, Arms Control Association: www.armscontrol.org; Russell Rumbaugh and Nathan Cohn, "Resolving Ambiguity: Costing Nuclear Weapons," 2012, Henry L. Stimson Center: www.stimson.org; Stephen Schwartz and Deepti Choubey, "Nuclear Security Spending: Assessing Costs, Examining Priorities," Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2009, http://carnegieendowment.org.

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This material is produced independently for NTI by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of and has not been independently verified by NTI or its directors, officers, employees, or agents.

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A fact sheet on current and projected costs of maintaining the U.S. nuclear deterrent, produced by the Center for Nonproliferation Studies.

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