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Nuclear modernization costs: $400B over 10 years

February 14, 2017 (Photo Credit: Getty Images, US Air Force, US Navy and John Bretschneider; Illustration by John Bretschneider/staff)
WASHINGTON — The current plan to modernize U.S. nuclear weapons will cost $400 billion from 2017 to 2026, according to a new government estimate.

That figure, released Tuesday by the Congressional Budget Office, is 15 percent higher than CBO’s most recent estimate, which pegged the cost for the 2015-2024 period at $348 billion. Both estimates factor inflation into their figures.

The next decade is key for the modernization of the nuclear triad, as a number of programs are expected to leave the early design phase and begin production, both at the Pentagon and at the Department of Energy, whose Nuclear National Security Administration is working to modernize and condense the number of nuclear warheads in stock.

Among programs with key milestones in the next decade are the Navy’s replacement for the Ohio-class nuclear submarine; the Air Force’s B-21, a new bomber design capable of both conventional and nuclear strike; the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent, a replacement for the existing Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles; and the Long Range Standoff weapon, a new nuclear cruise missile.

CBO estimates nuclear programs will subsume roughly 6 percent of the overall defense budget during this 10-year period, and it offers a rough breakdown of where that $400 billion will go:

  • $189 billion for strategic nuclear delivery systems and weapons, which includes Department of Defense funding for strategic nuclear delivery systems (the subs, ICBMs and bombers), DoE funding for activities related to the specific warheads used by those systems, and DoE funding for the nuclear reactors that power the submarines.
  • $9 billion for tactical nuclear delivery systems and weapons, which includes DoD funding for tactical aircraft that can deliver nuclear weapons over shorter ranges and DoE funding for activities related to the warheads that those aircraft carry.
  • $87 billion for DoE’s nuclear weapons laboratories and their supporting activities, including funding for activities at nuclear weapons laboratories and production facilities that are not attributable directly to a specific type of warhead but that are related to maintaining current and future stockpiles of nuclear weapons.
  • $58 billion for DoD’s command, control, communications and early-warning systems that allow operators to communicate with nuclear forces, issue commands that control their use, and detect incoming attacks or rule out false alarms.
That leaves $56 billion unaccounted for — money that CBO believes will be needed to handle additional costs during this period “if the costs for those nuclear programs exceeded planned amounts at roughly the same rates that costs for similar programs have grown in the past.”

As to the 15 percent increase since the last cost estimate, CBO primarily chalks that up to the shifting timetable. By moving the report from the 2015-2024 period to the 2017-2026 period, the new numbers now include more mature programs.

“The development costs of weapon systems typically increase as a program proceeds, which means that the current estimate replaces two lower-cost years with two higher-cost years,” the report reads. “The current estimate also includes the initial years of purchases in some programs that were not covered by the previous estimate, further raising costs in the 2017–2026 period relative to the 2015–2024 period. In addition, in the two years since CBO’s earlier estimate, the modernization plans for some nuclear systems have become better defined, leading to higher cost projections for some programs and lower projections for others.”

The CBO report does not touch on the question of what happens if the Trump administration moves to change the current plan, a legacy of the Obama administration. President Donald Trump has ordered a formal Nuclear Posture Review, to be headed by Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis.

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