Trillion-dollar nuclear arms plan sets up budget brawl
A government report raises alarms that the Pentagon severely underestimated what it will take to replace its current arsenal.
A government report predicting it will cost $1.2 trillion to upgrade the U.S. nuclear arsenal is raising alarms that the Pentagon severely underestimated what it will take to replace its current weapons — and sparked calls Tuesday for the Trump administration to reevaluate a modernization plan first proposed by former President Barack Obama.
The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimated it will cost at least $1.2 trillion between 2017 and 2046 to introduce the mix of nuclear-armed submarines, bombers and missiles that are now under construction. That’s a higher price tag than some previous estimates had offered.
The projections immediately set off a fierce debate over whether such a plan is even practical, and presented Congress with a new quandary as lawmakers try to find the money to support President Donald Trump’s other military priorities, like building a bigger Navy.
“Congress still doesn’t seem to have any answers as to how we will pay for this effort, or what the trade-offs with other national security efforts will be if we maintain an arsenal of over 4,000 nuclear weapons and expand our capacity to produce more,” Rep. Adam Smith of Washington state, the top Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, said in a statement that praised the report as a “thorough, credible analysis.”
But supporters insisted that spending what the Pentagon projects could amount to 6 percent of Pentagon’s budget to upgrade the nuclear arsenal over the next three decades is a fair price for what one called the “cornerstone of America’s national security.”
“The price is affordable and the mission is imperative,” Claude Chafin, the spokesman for Republican members of the Armed Services panel, said in a statement. “Those who might argue otherwise ignore the enormous cost of facing an increasingly insecure world with an eroding and uncertain deterrent.”
And the country’s top nuclear officials have defended the modernization effort’s cost. “We’re now at a point where we must recapitalize every leg of the nuclear triad,” Air Force Gen. Paul Selva, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the House Armed Services Committee in March. “We have squeezed about all of the life we can out of the systems we possess.”
The new report comes as Trump pledges to make the nation’s nuclear deterrent “far stronger and more powerful than ever before,” and as his administration reassesses the nation’s nuclear weapons structure. That so-called Nuclear Posture Review is expected to be completed by January, and could propose new programs.
A spokesperson for the White House National Security Council, asked to comment on the report, noted the Trump administration’s nuclear review is ongoing and that Defense Secretary Jim Mattis is due to present his recommendations to the president by the end of the year.
But the new CBO estimate shows that even the current plan poses significant challenges for a strained federal budget outlook. It updates a previous analysis that concluded the nuclear modernization plan would cost more than $400 billion between 2017 and 2026.
“If this goes through this will be the biggest increase in U.S. spending for nuclear weapons since the Reagan administration in the early 1980s,” said Stephen Schwartz, a nuclear policy consultant. “It is not penny-wise. It is likely that Congress, the Air Force and the Navy are really going to get spooked by the looming bill. It is not affordable.”
The new budget estimates reinforce the concerns of those who have long insisted the plan is not viable.
Indeed, the new government cost estimate is in line with a one previously published by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, Calif., which estimated that updating the nuclear triad could cost more than $1 trillion over 30 years. That assessment has been widely criticized by advocates of nuclear weapon spending as an exaggeration.
But in actuality the costs could even be higher than even the CBO is now estimating, according to a number of nuclear policy experts.
Tom Collina, director of policy at the nonprofit Ploughshares Fund, which advocates for having fewer nuclear weapons, pointed out that the new report does not take inflation into account. He said the real cost could be more like $1.5 trillion.
“The price of the nuclear arsenal rebuild is skyrocketing and it’s unsustainable,” he said in an interview. “This is now a spending spree.”
In addition, the costs of the nuclear arsenal are almost sure to fluctuate as weapons programs and spending on new facilities and communications systems mature. And they could grow substantially if the Trump administration’s nuclear review results in an even more robust upgrade plan.
“If the forthcoming Nuclear Posture Review by the administration does not scale-back current nuclear weapons spending plans — or worse, accelerates or expands upon them — expenditures on nuclear weapons will endanger other high priority national security programs,” Kingston Reif, director for disarmament and threat reduction policy at the Arms Control Association, said in a statement.
“This also only looks at the current plan,” Schwartz added. “If the NPR comes back and it turns out they want a new sea-launched cruise missile or a new warhead or a more bombers, all this stuff goes out the window.”
The CBO report is already being used to try to force a new debate on nuclear needs.
Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, called the upgrade plan “nothing more than a budgetary boondoggle” and in a statement urged “cutting unnecessary and destabilizing nuclear weapons systems.”
“There has never been a serious debate in Congress over the comprehensive cost of the nuclear weapons program,” added Schwartz. “We have a golden opportunity. I do not have a great deal of optimism that there are enough people in the Trump administration that are interested in this and looking at this closely.”
But Reif said reality is bound to set in eventually.
“Unless the U.S. government finds a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow,” he said, “the nuclear weapons spending plan inherited by the Trump administration will pose a crushing affordability problem.”
Bryan Bender contributed to this report.
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