Defuse the Exploding Costs of Nuclear Weapons

By Kimball, Daryl G. | Arms Control Today, December 2012 | Go to article overview

Defuse the Exploding Costs of Nuclear Weapons


Kimball, Daryl G., Arms Control Today


If Congress and the White House are serious about reducing the growing federal deficit, they must seize the opportunity to scale back costly schemes for building a new generation of strategic nuclear delivery systems and rebuilding tactical nuclear bombs.

More than two decades after the end of the Cold War, the United States still maintains a strategic nuclear triad that is sized to launch far more nuclear weapons than necessary to deter nuclear attack. Today, the United States deploys 1,722 warheads on 806 strategic missiles and bombers, while Russia deploys 1,499 warheads on 491 strategic missiles and bombers. Each side has thousands more warheads in reserve. The direct cost of the U.S. arsenal and its support infrastructure exceeds $31 billion annually, according to independent estimates.

The result is nuclear excess. Other than Russia, the only potential U.S. adversary with a long-range nuclear capability is China, which has no more than 50 to 75 single-warhead strategic missiles, according to the Pentagon. Just one U.S. nucleararmed submarine loaded with 24 missiles, each armed with four 455-kiloton warheads, could kill millions. As the Pentagon's 2012 defense strategy paper correctly asserts, "It is possible that our deterrence goals can be achieved with a smaller nuclear force."

Nevertheless, the Navy wants to design and build 12 new nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines to carry more than 1,000 strategic nuclear warheads into the 2070s, at a total cost of almost $350 billion. The Air Force is seeking new, nuclear-armed strategic bombers that would cost at least $68 billion, as well as a new fleet of land-based ballistic missiles. Modernization and operation of the United States' 450 Minuteman III land-based ballistic missiles would cost billions more.

Meanwhile, Russia is pursuing its own, expensive ballistic missile modernization program to maintain pace with the United States. If Moscow and Washington maintain excessive forces, it is more likely that China will increase the size and lethality of its strategic nuclear force. Rather than inducing others to build up, Russia and the United States should realize that it is in their security interest to accelerate the pace of planned reductions and reduce their stockpiles well below the 1,550-warhead ceiling set by the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.

The first logical step is to reduce the size of the U.S. nucleararmed strategic submarine force. In January 2012, the Pentagon said it would delay deployment of the first replacement nucleararmed submarine by two years, starting in 2031 rather than 2029. This will save $6-7 billion in the next 10 years. …

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