Is Nuclear Weapons Modernization Affordable?
By: Clark Murdock
At the end of 2010, the Obama administration and Senate Republicans (led by then-Senator Jon Kyl) reached a deal on New START ratification, namely that the Senate would ratify the treaty in exchange for administration support of modernization of U.S. nuclear weapons and the complex that supports them. Almost immediately, there was controversy over what the deal meant: was the administration committed to sustaining the nuclear triad and its supporting infrastructure or was it committed to the exact budget numbers—$225 billion for the nuclear weapons and their delivery system and $85 billion for the complex—in the 1251 Report submitted to Congress? Moreover, the fiscal context for nuclear modernization changed significantly in August 2011 with passage of the Budget Control Act of 2011, which mandated defense budget cuts totaling $487 billion over FY2012–2021.
How affordable is nuclear modernization? The first question: compared to what? In 2011, the United States spent $34 billion, which is more than all of the other nuclear powers combined. Yet that amounted to less than 5 percent of the Defense Department’s budget. In contrast, Russia spends almost 13 percent of its budget on its nuclear forces, the United Kingdom and France about 7.5 percent, and Pakistan almost 30 percent. Only China, if their budgetary data is accurate, spends less of its defense budget (about 4.4 percent) on nuclear weapons. Nevertheless, modernizing all three legs of the nuclear triad will be expensive–a replacement for the Ohio-class submarine could cost $6 billion. This is roughly the same cost as the 1 percent decrease in the cost-of-living adjustment to the pensions of working-age military retirees that was part of the Ryan-Murray budget agreement early this year. And Congress repealed that. In this fiscal climate, the cost of nuclear modernization will be much debated, despite
its relative affordability.