An unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile launches during an operational test at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. Image: USAF
It could cost the United States $1.2 trillion to maintain and modernize its existing nuclear arsenal between 2017 and 2046, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office reported this week.But nuclear deterrence doesn't need to be so pricey, the CBO asserted. Researchers have proposed alternatives that could save US taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars.The projected $40 billion annual tab, incurred by the Defense Department and the Department of Energy, pays for upkeep on America's 4,000 atomic warheads. Under the terms of the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia, the US military can legally keep just 1,550 of the warheads in a high state of readiness.
The overall cost includes the price of the so-called "nuclear triad," the military term for the 450 intercontinental ballistic missiles, 12 nuclear-missile submarines, and 120 stealth bombers that, under current plans, will carry the 1,550 deployed warheads in coming decades.But the United States could probably deter Russia, China, North Korea, and other nuclear powers with a much smaller force, the CBO explained. "Several recent studies have argued that the United States should pursue a policy of minimum deterrence, which means that the number of deployed warheads would be substantially reduced from today's levels," the report reads.
The researchers sketched a range of options. Among them, reducing the number of ready-to-launch warheads to 1,000 or fewer. The military could also eliminate one of the three legs of the nuclear triad by decommissioning all of the land-based, nuclear-tipped rockets, all of the missile subs, or all of the stealth bombers.The deepest cuts the CBO proposed could save $200 billion over 30 years, but would leave intact the country's basic nuclear infrastructure, including the Energy Department laboratories that develop new nukes. "Savings could be greater if the Department of Energy's nuclear weapons laboratories were scaled back because of the reduced size of the stockpile," the CBO pointed out.
A smaller and cheaper nuke force has some high-profile backers, including former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff James Cartwright and former defense secretary William Perry."A dollar spent on nuclear weapons is a dollar taken away from other priority military needs, such as sustaining conventional forces and countering terrorism and cyber attacks," Cartwright and Perry wrote in an October 31 letter to President Donald Trump. "The United States cannot afford to do it all."Trump, however, seems hostile to nuclear cuts. If anything, he wants to grow the atomic arsenal. In early October, Trump floated the idea of growing the atomic stockpile to as many as 32,000 warheads—a nearly 10-times increase over today's forces.Experts dismissed Trump's idea. The bigger arsenal would take decades to build and, according to Jeffrey Lewis, a nuclear expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, "would cost approximately eleventy bazillion dollars."A much, much smaller arsenal could save hundreds of billions of dollars while still protecting America, experts asserted. "We think it is time to step back and take a fresh look," Perry and Cartwright advised.Get six of our favorite Motherboard stories every day by signing up for our newsletter.