The group Global Zero recently released a report assessing nuclear weapons spending worldwide. Their findings indicate that over the next decade, governments will significantly increase their nuclear weapons spending, eventually surpassing $1 trillion over the next decade.
While this figure is significant, it must also be taken with a grain of salt. First, the trillion dollar figure is what Global Zero calls the “full cost” of nuclear weapons, as opposed to the “core cost.” Core costs refer to “researching, developing, procuring, testing, operating, maintaining and upgrading the nuclear arsenal.” Full costs are derived from a more holistic approach, including “unpaid/deferred environmental and health costs, missile defenses assigned to defend nuclear weapons, nuclear threat reduction, and incident management”. The report’s figure for the core cost of nuclear weapons over the next decade rests at about $670 million, therefore falling short of the $1 trillion dollar figure.
Another concern is that the report’s figures have a wide margin of error. Quantifying even broad defense spending for countries like Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea is problematic, and as such, speculating about their total nuclear spending is near impossible. Global Zero admits this, but fairly argues that these programs are “small enough that inaccuracies in estimates would have negligible effect on the general conclusion.” At current levels, “the nine nuclear weapons countries are spending approximately one trillion dollars per decade.”
Methodological concerns aside, what the report succinctly expresses is that world-wide investment in nuclear weapons is greater than ever.
It seems that every piece of Cold-War era nuclear technology is reaching its expiration date simultaneously. Cash-strapped nations are being forced to decide whether to undertake costly modernization programs for their nuclear ballistic missile submarines, dual-capable aircraft, warheads, and nuclear facilities.
Even as the Obama administration proposes to trim defense spending by $400 billion over the next decade and the Pentagon is undertaking a review of U.S. nuclear deterrence requirements, it plans to spend approximately $213 billion on the modernization of nuclear weapons and their supporting infrastructure over the next decade. This price tag includes, among other things, refurbishing and extending the life of the B61 nuclear bomb, construction of new nuclear facilities at Los Alamos and Oak Ridge, and a new nuclear ballistic missile submarine (known as the SSBN(X).
As the Global Zero report states, the United States accounts for more than half of the world’s nuclear defense spending in both the full and core cost categories. Meanwhile, Russia plans to spend $70 billion on new strategic arms through 2020, a figure which makes up 10% of its overall defense budget. According to Global Zero founder Bruce Blair, “modernization is progressing at such a pace we are seeing more spending on nuclear weapons than at any time since the Cold War.”
With most of the world mired in an unprecedented period of financial strain, Global Zero included a telling graphic in their report on what just 1 nuke, out of the roughly 25,000 world wide, could buy: 400 college scholarships, 78 jobs for firefighters, health coverage for 36,000 low income Americans, or 99,000ft of solar panels.
Global Zero’s report compels us to reconsider the cost-effectiveness of these weapons, and re-chart the current trillion dollar path in a safer and more fiscally responsible direction.