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The Congressional Budget Office was created in 1974 to help Senators and Representatives better understand the government’s spending. In a report now done every two years, CBO examines future nuclear deterrent spending.

Its newest report on nuclear spending CBO once again cleverly cooks the books claiming an unanticipated 28% growth in the newest ten-year estimates of nuclear spending. Fully half of the “growth” was simply due to CBO adding two more expensive out-years for two low spending early years as they moved the ten-year estimate to the right. The other half of the growth was a CBO guess as to future cost growth which they assume will mirror past cost growth.

However, the past reassessment of the NNSA budget for example was to get an accurate handle on NNSA spending which was done to better manage the programs, which has been largely achieved. Those numbers did dramatically increase.

For much of the history of these nuclear reports, CBO has mis-labeled all the nuclear spending as “modernization”. Occasionally the CBO will admit that sustainment and operations are not the same as modernization. For example, in its 2019 report, CBO admits the U.S. has “…not built any new nuclear weapons or delivery systems” for nearly four decades, yet still questioned whether the country should support the administration’s 2018 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) and by implication the 2018 bipartisan congressionally mandated National Security Strategy Commission (NSSC).

Both the NPR and NSSC warned of the growing nuclear threats from Russia and China and call for a serious nuclear modernization effort and additional nuclear investments.

But despite these twin calls for more nuclear modernization, CBO also finds a way to use creative accounting tricks to make it appear nuclear spending is already markedly increasing and could if required be significantly curtailed. The line item for ICBMs, for example is $4.2 billion for FY2021. For the uninitiated, the line would be assumed to reflect the new GBSD program. But no, it does not. The MM III sustainment, and operations and the new $1.5 billion for GBSD are all lumped together. And for good measure, CBO adds in the costs of the NNSA ICBM warhead work and the ongoing NC3 or command, control, and communications work, both of which are simply to sustain the current capability of the nuclear enterprise. The warheads are aging and NC3 needs to be protected from cyber. The modernization element is $1.5 billion, not $4.2 billion.

Such budgetary sleight of hand is not new. For example, CBO in its 2017 report added in 100% of all the conventional bomber costs to the nuclear accounts, increasing four-fold their previous estimates and adding an astounding $200 billion to their estimate of the 30-year costs of nuclear “modernization.”

This was done despite official OSD testimony to Congress that the nuclear costs of our dual use conventional bombers were no more than 3% of the bomber spending accounts.

CBO also in 2017 assessed all nuclear programs over thirty years, not the usual ten-year budget window. This magically lifted nuclear spending to over $1 trillion, a figure latched onto by the disarmament community to subsequently “prove” nuclear spending was out of control.

In 2019, CBO kept the 100% cost estimate for the B2 and 25% for the B-52 and the new B-21 bombers, respectively, still artificially adding $45 billion to the nuclear spending accounts.

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Second, CBO arbitrarily added an “extra” 3% a year to nuclear costs, and over 10 years effectively adds at least $62 billion to the “nuclear budget”.

Third, CBO added $9 billion costs of a possible Navy based cruise missile and its warhead that mightbe part of the USA regional extended nuclear deterrent, but which was not in the administration’s defense budget.

Fourth, the CBO included two additional out-years in their ten-year window that reflect the peak of modernization and drop-out two years we have already completed. This alone “added” $51 billion to the program over the new ten-year window but as CBO admits “does not signal an increase in programs total lifetime costs.” They pulled the same trick this week with a $70 billion increase which was simply due to the same accounting trick.

[But then when you read the CBO summary, the “increase” is included in the 2019 CBO report summary that claims since 2017 unanticipated “nuclear costs have increased 23%?]

If the non-strategic cruise missile costs of $9 billion over the next 10 years, the $62 billion in artificial program cost growth, and the excess bomber costs of $45 billion are cut from CBO’s estimates, average annual nuclear sustainment and modernization costs drop from $50 billion to $38 billion annually, roughly in accordance with the 2019 annual costs of the entire nuclear enterprise, which are now around $44 billion.

But CBO’s sleight of hand does not end here. Although the land-based ICBM program, known as GBSD, was executing under budget and ahead of schedule, CBO used an old inflated total cost of over $100 billion for the program, including $61 billion for the next ten years, which was at least in my estimate some $20 billion too high. [The latest research, development and acquisition cost for GBSD is around $79.6 billion for the 2016-2075 period, or $1.6 billion a year.]

A final critical flaw in the CBO assessment is their artful conjoining of the costs of new weapons--modernization—with the costs of sustaining the legacy systems last modernized during the Reagan administration.

This has important implications.

First sustaining the current relatively old systems comes to as much as nearly two-thirds of the cost of what is often incorrectly described as “modernization”, but which is sustainment and some modest modernization. Over the lifetime of the nuclear effort, that number will be at least 50%.

Second, admitting this cost distinction upfront would take away the headline that America’s nuclear programs are leading some kind of new arms race. The accurate narrative would be the United States hasn’t modernized its nuclear deterrent for nearly 40 years and legacy system sustainment costs are increasing!

Third, if unilateral cuts to legacy programs are made, that would immediately take down whole parts of our nuclear forces. No USA president (Democrat or Republican) during the 47 years of the nuclear arms control age have ever made unilateral cuts in our deployed strategic deterrent not specifically required by arms agreements to which the USA signed, and Congress consented.

What’s the upshot of all this? CBO’s amalgamation of creative accounting based upon artificially derived assumptions provides only a fictionally based set of budget numbers that when examined do not support the possible unilateral reductions to our nuclear capabilities being pursued by disarmament and nuclear global zero enthusiasts.

Peter R. HuessyMr. Huessy is the President of Geostrategic Analysis, a Potomac, Maryland-based defense and national security consulting business, and Director of Strategic Deterrent Studies at the Mitchell Institute, a Senior Fellow at ICAS, a senior consultant with Ravenna Associates, and previously for 22 years Senior Defense Consultant with the National Defense University Foundation at Fort McNair in Washington, D.C.He is and has been a Guest Lecturer at the School of Advanced International Affairs at Johns Hopkins University, at the Institute of World Politics, at the University of Maryland, at the Joint Military Intelligence School, at the Naval Academy and at the National War College.