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Trillion-Dollar Tab to Renew U.S. Nuclear Triad to Be Reviewed

  • Congressional Budget Office assessing the 30-year expenses
  • CBO report would help frame debate over modernizing arsenal

A projected trillion-dollar price tag to upgrade, support and maintain the U.S.’s three-legged nuclear arsenal over the next 30 years is likely to be confirmed in a new assessment now under way by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.

The project to modernize the air-land-sea triad of nuclear weapons was initiated under former President Barack Obama. It’s been endorsed by President Donald Trump, who’s now focused on pressuring North Korea to give up its expanding nuclear arsenal. He tweeted before taking office that “the United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.”

Most of the money wouldn’t be spent until after 2022. But the high cost of nuclear modernization -- part of what defense officials call a “bow wave” of looming spending on major weapons that will peak in coming decades -- is drawing criticism from arms control advocates and skeptics in Congress who have projected the cost of $1 trillion or more.

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That rate of spending is in keeping with consecutive 10-year assessments already made by the Congressional Budget Office, including the estimate made this year of $400 billion from 2017 through 2026. The new review essentially will expand those projections over a full 30 years, CBO spokeswoman Deborah Kilroe said in an email. It was requested by a lawmaker she declined to identify.

‘Deeply Relevant’

The CBO’s estimates are “consistent with and may exceed the trillion-dollar estimate across 30 years,” Representatives Adam Smith and Pete Visclosky, the top Democrats on the House Armed Services and Defense Appropriations panels, wrote the agency last month, requesting to be briefed on the report.

The lawmakers referred to the $1 trillion estimate of independent groups, such as the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, California, as a reference point. “Information about the long-term costs and plans” of the nuclear upgrade “are deeply relevant to inform congressional oversight and near-term decisions,” they wrote.

The cost has become a touchy congressional issue. The House Armed Services Committee last year rejected on a 36-26 vote an amendment by Representative Pete Aguilar, a California Democrat, calling for the CBO to conduct a 30-year cost assessment every year instead of providing 10-year projections.

Aging Systems

Minuteman III missile in a silo circa 1998.

Source: USAF

The upgrades are driven by the age of systems such as the Minuteman III missiles first deployed 40 years ago and the fleet of 14 Ohio-class nuclear missile submarines, which already had their service lives extended to 42 years from 30 years. The Air Force last year chose Northrop Grumman Corp. to develop and build a new nuclear-capable bomber at a projected cost of $80 billion as a successor to the Eisenhower-era B-52.

The Defense Department announced Monday that it’s conducting a new Nuclear Posture Review -- a staple of an incoming administration -- “to ensure the U.S. nuclear deterrent is safe, secure, effective, reliable and appropriately tailored to deter 21st-century threats and reassure our allies.”

Pentagon officials have repeatedly declined to embrace the $1 trillion estimate officially, focusing instead on the lesser costs of acquiring the weapons without accounting for supporting and maintaining them. They cite a range of $350 billion to $450 billion over 20 years. But in public forums last year, two officials, including Lieutenant General Jack Weinstein, the Air Force’s top nuclear policy officer, said $1 trillion was a fair 30-year estimate if it includes total expenditures.

Full Estimate

Critics say that may make the nuclear upgrade unaffordable when added to a projected surge after 2022 in spending on aircraft, ships, satellites and an expanded army. Lockheed Martin Corp.’s F-35 jet, the Pentagon’s most expensive weapons program, has been criticized on the same grounds: It’s projected to cost $379 billion to procure and an additional $1.12 trillion to operate and support through 2070.

“Those who want to make nuclear forces seems less expensive will cite a 10-year cost estimate that only includes modernization,” Todd Harrison, a defense budget analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said in an email. “Those that want costs to seem high will cite a 30-year cost estimate that includes modernization, operation, and sustainment costs.”

No matter the number used, “all three legs of the nuclear triad are due for modernization nearly simultaneously,” so the “big unknown is how it will be paid for, especially since many conventional weapons are planning replacement programs at the same time,” said Harrison, who was co-author of a review of the nuclear affordability issue. “Barring a significant increase in the defense budget in the 2020s, something is going to have to give.”

Even at $1 trillion, the nuclear modernization is about 5 or 6 percent of projected defense spending over the next decade, according to Harrison and Republican Representative Mike Rogers of Alabama, chairman of the House Armed Services strategic forces panel.

“This includes operating and sustaining our current force, as well as the costs for modernizing the triad, warheads, and supporting infrastructure,” Rogers said in an email. “Even at the peak of the modernization program in the 2020s, the total cost of our nuclear deterrent is unlikely to grow by more than a percent or two of the defense budget. This is a tiny fraction of our national treasure being spent.”

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