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By Peter Huessy, President of Geostrategic Analysis, Potomac, Maryland

Pick up a newspaper or review an article online and one would think the US nuclear deterrent modernization effort is going to cost the US government some $1.5-$1.7 trillion over the next thirty years, or an average of over $53 billion annually. As a result, there are various efforts in Congress to hack billions from an assumed bloated nuclear budget in the name of fiscal prudence.

But the facts are otherwise. Nuclear modernization costs are not $1.5 trillion. And not even $1 trillion. In fact, in one CBO estimate, real modernization costs were estimated at 73% less or around $400 billion.

Why does the media use inflated numbers? First, laziness. Second, they often do not understand what is being modernized and what simply sustained. And third, they like smacking around defense budget hawks and the supposed militarists in the Pentagon.

In actuality, in any one year, as much as two-thirds of the entire nuclear modernization enterprise is devoted not to modernization but to sustainment. It is true, when CBO first started putting out these numbers, they did not make a distinction between operations and sustainment and modernization. So, media reports followed suit and made no distinction. But since then, because of criticism, CBO has admitted modernization is closer to $400 billion over 30 years, and this still includes variously between 25% and 100% of the conventional bomber force costs that former OSD official Jim Miller says is only 3% nuclear related. Just recently on May 24, the CBO estimates all Triad costs at $624 billion over ten years, but again this included 0&M, NNSA, NC3 and other sustainment costs.

Back in 2019, CBO cleverly cooked the budget books on nuclear spending to get the initial $1.2 trillion figure. This was then reported to Congress. And a flashy new bumper sticker---“Nukes will cost over a trillion dollars”---was born, used to scare everyone to death about the alleged unaffordable nuke spending.

But the facts say otherwise. When analyzed carefully, mods and sustainment together might get you to near $1 trillion for the next thirty years but definitely not modernization, which is after all the target of the nuclear disarmers. .

One example will suffice: what is the total annual research, development, test, and evaluation, (RDT&E) and acquisition budget for all the modernization elements in our nuclear arsenal?

This includes the platforms: a refurbished D5/2 sub missile, the new B-21 strategic bomber, the new ICBM or Ground-based Strategic Deterrent or GBSD, the new Columbia class submarine and the new long-range cruise missile for the bomber known as the LRSO.

Total spending in FY2021 for these strategic nuclear forces—all of which are regulated by the New START treaty-- is $8.5 billion in FY2021.

Less than what Americans spend driving to the movies each year. And what the US government spends in a ten-hour workday.

And the modernization costs peak in 2030 and decline thereafter. By comparison, food stamps alone are $85 billion annually, or ten times what we now spend on nuclear modernization..

Now there are areas of the nuclear enterprise that are costly. After decades of neglect, underfunding and poor management, the NNSA or National Nuclear Security Administration conducts a Stockpile Stewardship program of our old nuclear warhead production and sustainment complex at an annual cost of over $20 billion. And they are making significant progress but not without serious ongoing challenges.

And the national nuclear command, control, and communications or NC3 needs to be overhauled, particularly to protect against cyber threats.

But this sustains, not modernizes, our nuclear enterprise and will add not a single nuclear warhead or delivery platform to the numbers we already have.

In short if we added ZERO new capability to our nuclear arsenal, and not a single new nuclear armed plane, submarine, or missile, we would still be spending upwards of two-thirds or more of the nuclear budget on sustaining the old legacy deterrent to prevent it from “rusting to obsolescence.”

After nearly three decades of neglect, what did we expect?

In summary, when we begin the modern platform or SNDV replacement program in 2029--- the US will have a nuclear force of 42-year-old subs, 60-year-old ICBMs, and 33-80-year-old strategic bombers.

Would most Americans send their children to college in a car this old? Never.

And in a Federal budget north of $7+ trillion, we are now spending .001% on nuke mods.

And that is not affordable? Of course, its affordable.

So, if this is not really a budget fight, what is going on?

This fight has to do with the ideology of nuclear global zero vs real deterrence.

Budget issues are irrelevant except to make it look as if we are recklessly spending far too much on nuclear deterrence.

Thus, the objective of nuclear critics is to get the US out of the nuclear business, preventing the use of nuclear weapons for any purposes, just as the late founder (Bruce Blair) of Global Zero proposed—the US he testified must only use conventional weapons in response to a Russian nuclear attack (Blair, HASC, May 2019).

The corollary of not using nuclear weapons is of course what then would be the need to buy them?

In 1981 at the height of the Cold War, Moscow and the US disarmament community called for a nuclear freeze. At the same time, a newly inaugurated President Reagan was proposing the US modernize its aging and eroding nuclear deterrent, in the face of a massive and nearly completed Soviet nuclear build-up.

A not dissimilar strategic imbalance the US and its allies are facing today.

Reagan’s nuclear and missile defense initiatives won the Cold War, even as he simultaneously started the process to reduce through arms control nuclear weapons by 90%.

Today, we are already at relatively low levels of nuclear forces.

And all the planned modernization is perfectly compatible with our arms control obligations.

The choice is clear: either we stay in the nuclear business and credibly sustain our deterrent, or we get out of the nuclear business and risk a world where only our enemies brandish nuclear weapons. 

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.