Surprise! Upgrading America’s Nuclear Arsenal Will Be Stupefyingly Expensive

The cost jumped $140 billion in just 2 years. Here’s why.

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  • The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) now says the cost of updating the U.S.’s nuclear weapons is $140 billion more than it estimated just 2 years ago.
  • The increase is largely due to inflation and the inclusion of new, expensive projects the CBO didn’t cover 2 years ago.
  • The new estimate comes as a proposal in Congress seeks to trim the nuclear budget.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office’s (CBO) estimate of nuclear weapon expenditures over the next decade has jumped a staggering $140 billion in just 2 years.

The estimate, which the agency provided to Congress to give an idea of how much it will take to build new missiles, ships, and planes, as well as revamp America’s vast nuclear infrastructure, comes as key members of the legislature are pushing to cut nuclear weapons spending over the next 10 years.

a launch of an unarmed minuteman iii intercontinental ballistic missile from vandenberg air force ba
The exhaust plume of a Minuteman III ICBM seen over Vandenberg Air Force Base, 2002. GARY FRIEDMAN GETTY IMAGES

The CBO’s “Projected Costs of U.S. Nuclear Forces 2021 to 2030” report estimates spending on nuclear weapons between 2021 and 2030 will cost $634 billion. That’s 28 percent higher than in 2019, when the CBO last published an estimate for nuclear spending between 2019 and 2028. The agency says the bulk of the increase is due to inflation and the inclusion of new nuclear programs set to start between 2028 and 2030.

The Pentagon hasn’t spent much—relatively speaking, of course—on new nuclear weapons systems in the 30 years since the end of the Cold War. The U.S. operates just one intercontinental ballistic missile (the Minuteman III), 14 Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines fitted with the Trident II D-5 missile, and a mixture of B-52 and B-2 bombers.

The Minuteman III dates to the 1970s, while the Ohio-class submarines launched in the 1980s, and the bombers are a mixture of 1960s and 1990s aircraft. With the possible exception of a stealth bomber or two, the Pentagon hasn’t built a major nuclear delivery system in the 21st century.

But the U.S.’s spending holiday on nukes is coming to a head. While the Pentagon has updated the three legs of the nuclear triad—ICBMs, submarines, and bombers—the branch has new versions of all three systems in the pipeline.

The Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) missile is set to replace Minuteman III, the Columbia-class missile submarines will replace the older Ohio class, and the new B-21 Raider bomber will replace the B-2. The Pentagon also plans to introduce new nuclear-tipped aircraft and submarine-launched cruise missiles.\

The 2-year increase accounts for upgrades to nuclear weapons laboratories, fuel processing facilities, testing grounds, and other sites. Like the weapons inventories themselves, these sites have been passed over for funding as nuclear weapons have taken a backseat to counterterrorism and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The CBO estimates it will cost approximately $142 billion to modernize these sites over 10 years.

The high cost of nuclear weapons is leading calls to cuts in nuclear modernization. The Smarter Approach to Nuclear Expenditures (SANE) Act, which Congress introduced this week, calls for cuts amounting to $78 billion.

The cuts include canceling the GBSD ballistic missile, Long Range Stand Off nuclear cruise missile, and the new submarine-launched nuclear-armed cruise missile. The SANE Act would also reduce the number of active warheads by 500 warheads to 1,000, limit nuclear warhead production, kill the modernization of other warheads, and retire the B83 nuclear gravity bomb, which is the largest warhead in the U.S. arsenal at 1.3 megatons (1,300,000 tons of TNT).

In killing off a replacement for the Minuteman III, the SANE Act would effectively reduce the nuclear arsenal from a triad of land-based missiles, submarines, and bombers to a dyad of submarines and bombers.

This would save a lot of money in the long run (the total GBSD acquisition costs are an estimated $100 billion) but it could also increase technical risk, as a flaw found in the remaining nukes could suddenly sideline hundreds of weapons. How much risk is the U.S. willing to accept while Russia and China operate hundreds of nukes of their own?

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