*Note: This post has been updated.
How much does the U.S. spend (and plan to spend) on nuclear weapons? This important question is finally receiving the public scrutiny that it deserves.
On October 11, Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA) held a press conference to highlight a letter he sent to the Congressional Supercommittee urging them to reduce nuclear weapons spending and use the resulting savings to invest in higher priority programs. In the letter, which was signed by 65 Members, Markey argued that the U.S. will spend an estimated $700 billion on nuclear weapons and related programs over the next ten years.
Later that day, Rep. Michael Turner (R-OH), Chairman of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces, disputed Markey’s $700 billion cost-estimate, calling it “not factual.” According to Turner, “The President submitted to Congress and pledged to fund nuclear modernization programs at $212 billion over ten years, or approximately $21.2 billion a year.”
The debate between Markey and Turner resurfaced at a November 2 Strategic Forces Subcommittee hearing on the current status and future direction for U.S. nuclear weapons policy. Turner asked the witness panel consisting of administration officials responsible for U.S. nuclear weapons about the accuracy of Rep. Markey’s estimate of nuclear weapons spending.
In response, Dr. James Miller, Principal Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Policy said:
“I’ve had an opportunity to look at some of the materials that were referenced in those cost estimates just before coming over here and I- without giving this more time than it deserves – suffice it to say there was double counting and some rather curious arithmetic involved.”
Miller went on to state that
“the Section 1251 Report that was submitted by the administration included our best estimate of the total costs [of] the amount of a nuclear enterprise and the delivery systems from FY12 through FY21….was $125.8 billion for the delivery systems and about $88 billion for the NNSA related costs. And my math suggests that that is…a little over $200 billion over that period, close to $214 billion.”
So who’s right? How much does the U.S. plan to spend on nuclear weapons over the next decade? It appears that Turner and the administration may only count a portion of the projected cost.
Parsing Rep. Markey’s $700 Billion Estimate
First, it’s important to clarify that Markey’s cost-estimate includes projected spending on nuclear weapons and related programs. According to the Ploughshares Fund, the source of the $700 billion figure cited by Markey, these related programs include missile defense, nuclear threat reduction, nuclear incident management, and deferred and environmental health costs (see their handy fact sheet explaining their methodology here). Ploughshares’ estimate of the direct costs of operating, sustaining, and modernizing U.S. nuclear forces is somewhere between $348 and $473 billion over the next decade, depending on how much of the $125 billion in proposed Pentagon spending on nuclear weapons is new money above base budgets, which is still not clear (more on this below).
It’s perfectly legitimate to debate whether the related programs included by Ploughshares should be considered part of a full cost accounting of nuclear weapons. I believe they should. As Jeffrey Lewis noted recently, these related programs are part of the cost of having nuclear weapons. However, if Turner wants to debate how much the U.S. spends solely on operating, sustaining, and modernizing U.S. nuclear weapons, then the appropriate comparison is between the administration’s estimate of $214 billion and the Ploughshares estimate of $348-$473 billion.
The Pentagon’s Share of Nuclear Weapons Spending: More than $125 Billion?
The administration’s estimate of $214 billion in spending on nuclear weapons over the next decade includes $88 billion for the National Nuclear Security Administration’s (NNSA) weapons activities account and about $125 million in spending for the Pentagon. The $88 billion figure is clear and precise. We know how much the administration plans to request each year and we know what activities this money will support.
However, this figure probably underestimates the NNSA portion of nuclear weapons spending because it does not appear to include the costs to NNSA of building the new reactor plant for the Ohio-class follow-on ballistic missile submarine, also known as the SSBN(X).
In contrast, the Pentagon’s estimate of $125 billion in spending on nuclear weapons is far more vague and opaque. It has not specified what activities and programs this funding supports.
Ploughshares incorporates the administration’s 10-year estimate for NNSA. However, its estimate for the Pentagon’s share of nuclear spending over the next decade is much higher than $125 billion.
The Ploughshares estimate of $700 billion in planned spending on nuclear weapons and related activities is based on a January 2009 study by Stephen Schwartz and Deepti Choubey, which used publicly available government documents to estimate the total cost of U.S. nuclear weapons and related programs. According to Schwartz and Choubey, the U.S. spent at least $52.4 billion on nuclear weapons and related activities in Fiscal Year (FY) 2008 (a similar study performed by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in 2006 estimated total spending to be $54 billion). Of that amount, the Pentagon devoted at least $22.5 billion to operate and sustain the U.S. nuclear arsenal.
Based on this estimate (and assuming that Pentagon spending will continue to keep pace with the inflation rate), Ploughshares projects the total base budget for the Pentagon’s share of nuclear weapons spending to be approximately $260 billion over the next decade. This figure could be even larger given that the Pentagon plans to begin building new delivery systems (such as the replacement for the Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine) that were not part of the budget in FY 2008 – though how much larger is not clear.
Why is the Schwartz and Choubey estimate of the Pentagon’s share of nuclear weapons spending larger than the administration’s estimate?
Though there is no way to be sure without access to the full Section 1251 report, it appears that the administration may only be counting the Pentagon’s Major Force Program 1, a department-wide accounting system created in 1962 that tracks the cost of strategic nuclear weapons programs. According to Schwartz and Choubey, Major Force Program 1 includes a significant portion of nuclear weapons spending, but does not count a number of other important activities that directly support the nuclear arsenal. The omissions include all intelligence-related spending, command, control, and communications costs, research and development spending, operations and support costs, and more. (UPDATE: 11/9: The Section 1251 report likely includes research and development money for the new Ohio-class replacement submarine and the next-generation bomber.)
Schwartz and Choubey estimated the FY 2008 appropriation for Major Forces Program 1 to be approximately $10 billion. When adjusted for inflation and multiplied over the next decade, this figure does not appear to be that far off from the administration’s estimate of $125 billion in spending over the next decade.
UPDATE (11/11): The FY 2012 request for Major Force Program 1 is $11.4 billion. Between FY 2012 and FY 2016 the Pentagon plans to request $62.2 billion in then-year dollars for the Program. The spike in the rate of growth in FY 15 and FY 16 suggests that spending on Major Force Program 1 may exceed $125 billion (which makes sense given that the budget impact of the Ohio class replacement sub and next generation bomber will start to be felt at that time), meaning there may be some costs still associated with Major Force Program 1 that the Section 1251 report doesn’t include, such as a portion of spending on strategic bombers because only a small portion of their mission today is nuclear. But then this is all further complicated by the fact, as noted above, that the administration likely includes funding from other force programs, such as research and development costs for the Ohio-class replacement submarine. In other words we don’t know what the 1251 report counts. But if Schwartz and Choubey are right, it seems clear that the administration is not counting all the costs necessary to operate, support, sustain, and modernize the force.
Conclusion and Implications
The obvious implication of the debate between Reps. Turner and Markey is that Congress should require the Executive Branch to prepare a full cost accounting of U.S. nuclear weapons and related program spending (at the very least it’d be nice to get a look at what the Section 1251 report is and is not counting). Congress can’t exercise effective oversight over nuclear weapons programs without accurate information about the cost of these programs. It’s not even clear that the Pentagon knows exactly how much its spends on nuclear weapons. As Schwartz and Choubey noted in their 2009 report:
Congress should require the executive branch to prepare and submit annually, in conjunction with the annual budget request, an unclassified and classified accounting of all nuclear weapons–related spending for the previous fiscal year, the current fiscal year, and the next fiscal year. The DOD, using its Future Years Defense Program, should project its nuclear weapons–related spending five or six years into the future.
A second important conclusion is that no matter where you come down on the debate between Reps. Turner and Markey, it is becoming increasingly clear that the Pentagon cannot afford its current nuclear weapons spending plans. As former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. James Cartwright, said in July: “The challenge here is that we have to recapitalize all three legs [of the nuclear triad], and we don’t have the money to do it.” Many other high-ranking military leaders have expressed similar views, and are looking for ways to reduce costs.
Given these budget realities, Congress should ask the Congressional Budget Office , the Office of Management and Budget, or another appropriate agency to assess the full lifetime costs of the Pentagon’s plans to build new nuclear weapons delivery systems and suggest options for scaling back these programs to reduce costs.