Analysts: Pentagon Overestimates Nuclear Costs

By Jon Harper
The Defense Department and Department of Energy overestimated the medium-term costs of maintaining and modernizing U.S. nuclear forces, analysts said.

Defense budget experts pegged the 10-year cost at $222 billion for fiscal years 2015 through 2024, during an August presentation at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington, D.C. think tank. That is far less than the $298 billion estimate put forth last year by the Defense Department and the Department of Energy, which are responsible for the nation’s nuclear arsenal.

CSBA analysts said the government estimate was flawed because it included the full cost of dual-use systems that were more likely to be employed for conventional purposes. One example they cited was the new long-range strike bomber, which the Defense Department predicted would cost $33.1 billion over the 10-year period. CSBA analysts argued that only a fraction of the cost of the new bomber should count toward the nuclear budget.

“What would change if we took the nuclear mission away? The Air Force has said that they would still buy the [new bomber], they would still buy the quantity that they’re planning to buy,” said Todd Harrison, a former CSBA budget expert who is now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Much of the variation among the different cost estimates for nuclear forces is due to how the dual-use systems are being treated.”

The biggest bills for the nuclear portfolio would come in the late 2020s and 2030s, when plans call for modernizing land-based, sea-based and airborne delivery systems as well as warheads, Harrison said. The convergence of these modernization programs will create a budgetary “bow wave” during this period, he said.

CSBA predicted nuclear-related costs will total between $30 billion and $35 billion annually from fiscal year 2025 through fiscal year 2036. In comparison, the U.S. government budgeted approximately $17 billion in fiscal year 2015 for nuclear forces, according to the think tank.

CSBA experts estimated the U.S. government will spend $836 billion between fiscal years 2014 and 2043 on its nuclear forces. Despite the high price tag, Harrison doesn’t believe that the programs are necessarily unaffordable, as other analysts have suggested.

“The cost of our nuclear forces should peak at just under 5 percent of the total national defense budget,” he said. “Nuclear modernization is affordable even within current budget constraints if it remains a priority. If other things are a higher priority, then surely some of these programs could be on the chopping block.”

If the Defense Department does decide to scale back its plans, CSBA outlined several measures that officials could take to save money. One was reducing the size of the ballistic missile submarine fleet from 14 to 10 boomers by 2020, for a projected cost savings of $27.6 billion over the next 25 years. Another option would be eliminating one of the nation’s three intercontinental ballistic missile wings and delaying the modernization of ground-based nuclear forces by five years, with estimated savings of $30.9 billion over the next 25 years.

A breakdown of the projected costs of the various components of the nuclear force and potential cost saving measures, can be found in a July CSBA report titled, “Cost of Nuclear Forces: From BCA to Bow Wave and Beyond.”

Topics: Defense Department, DOD Budget

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