Resolving the Ambiguity of Nuclear Weapons Costs

By Rumbaugh, Russell; Cohn, Nathan | Arms Control Today, June 2012 | Go to article overview

Resolving the Ambiguity of Nuclear Weapons Costs


Rumbaugh, Russell, Cohn, Nathan, Arms Control Today


For many observers, nuclear weapons top the list of areas in which savings should be found in the face of declining defense budgets. Indeed, the Department of Defense's own strategic guidance acknowledges that "[i]t is possible that our deterrence goals can be achieved with a smaller nuclear force, which would reduce the number of nuclear weapons in our inventory as well as their role in U.S. national security strategy."1

Fewer nuclear weapons presumably mean less spending, but no one can say how much less, in part because there is no definitive estimate of current nuclear weapons spending. Official estimates tend to be narrowly defined. Unofficial estimates capture more costs, but with less detail and authority. Without a definitive cost estimate, controversy over spending creates confusion, which clouds debate over U.S. nuclear posture and force structure.

During the past year, the Stimson Center conducted a study to help dispel that confusion.2 The study found that most controversy stems from two specific issues. First, people disagree about what counts as nuclear weapons spending. Second, it is genuinely unclear what costs within the Defense Department support the operations and maintenance of nuclear weapons. Once these two issues are addressed, there is little disagreement about the cost of nuclear weapons. The study clarifies these two issues by comparing the various definitions of nuclear weapons spending, including those in official estimates, and using an inductive approach to estimate support costs within the Defense Department. Although the results still are not definitive, they clarify the debate and provide a framework for minimizing confusion about nuclear weapons spending. At the very least, this study should clarify that official estimates relying on a narrow definition of nuclear weapons understate the actual amounts the United States spends on nuclear weapons.

Defining the Spending

What counts as nuclear weapons spending has always been a thorny issue. The Obama administration's best official estimate puts nuclear weapons spending at $214 billion over the next 10 years, or just more than $20 billion a year.3 Yet, several independent studies say spending is as high as $55 billion a year.4 These figures suggest a wide range of estimates for nuclear spending, stoking the controversy over how much nuclear weapons cost. The estimates differ largely because they count different things.

The responsibility for nuclear weapons costs was split more than 65 years ago and is still broken into two different parts run by two different agencies. Today, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), a semiautonomous unit of the Department of Energy, is in charge of the fissile material that makes a nuclear weapon nuclear.5 The Defense Department is in charge of the delivery vehicles that would carry nuclear warheads to their target.6 This split means no single agency in the federal government is responsible for all nuclear spending. There is no single line item for such spending in the annual budget justification documents. This is not to say that the agencies do not account for the spending. They do, but in ways that accord with their budgeting systems, which are not designed to answer a question such as how much the United States spends on nuclear weapons.

In the Energy Department, costs for nuclear weapons are displayed fairly straightforwardly. In fiscal year 2011, 63 percent of the department's budget went to Atomic Energy Defense Activities, one of the formal subfunctions by which the U.S. government budget is displayed. The category further breaks down into two big groupings. The first, which accounts for $5.8 billion, or 36 percent, covers Defense Environmental Cleanup and other activities that clean up sites used to develop nuclear weapons. The other 64 percent, or $10.5 billion, goes to the NNSA. The NNSA itself runs four major programs that comprise that $10. …

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