"The U.S. Can Save Money
by Shrinking Its Nuclear Arsenal."
Don't count on it. In the climate of budget austerity now afflicting Washington, some supporters of nuclear cuts turn to another, nonstrategic argument to advance their case, saying that reducing the size of the nuclear arsenal would save money. But it would not save much, and it might even cost more.
It is important to understand that warhead reductions alone will not result in savings. As any employee of the U.S. national nuclear laboratories can tell you, the cost of nuclear weapons is in the infrastructure; the warheads, in comparison, are virtually free. If the United States is going to retain even a handful of nuclear weapons, it will need national laboratories with scientists and technicians, delivery vehicles, military units trained to handle nuclear weapons, and many other capabilities. These are large, fixed costs regardless of the number of warheads in the arsenal.
Moreover, reducing the number of nuclear weapons the United States deploys can actually result in short-term budget increases. Reducing arsenal size means pulling missiles out of silos, dismantling retired warheads, and decommissioning and decontaminating nuclear facilities. All of this costs money.
It would only be by failing to fully modernize the systems that deliver the warheads -- intercontinental ballistic missiles, bombers, and submarines -- that the United States could hope to save money. But unless it completely disarms or kills a leg of this triad, the country's aging missiles, bombers, and subs will need to be upgraded. Delaying the modernization of delivery vehicles, as some have suggested, would save only an estimated $3.9 billion annually over 10 years, an amount that is nothing short of trivial compared with the overall U.S. defense budget, which is roughly $600 billion per year.
Over the long term, the budget-savings argument becomes even less compelling. Nuclear weapons provide a lot of bang for the buck, literally and figuratively. President Dwight Eisenhower's "New Look" policy in the 1950s emphasized nuclear weapons -- as does current Russian military doctrine -- because they are less costly than comparable conventional capabilities. If the United States continues to cut its nuclear arsenal, it will need to develop new conventional capabilities to fill the roles and missions previously performed by nuclear weapons. At present, nuclear weapons provide a strategic deterrent at a cost of only about 4 percent of the defense budget. Do we really think equivalent conventional forces would be more cost-efficient?
Furthermore, only if we think the United States can maintain a diminished nuclear force indefinitely is it plausible to think that nuclear cuts will save money, but this would be an unwise bet given that other countries are moving in the opposite direction. In 1989, the Energy Department shut down its only plutonium-pit manufacturing plant at Rocky Flats, Colorado. Decommissioning and decontaminating the facility cost taxpayers $7 billion. In 2007, however, the department restored pit-manufacturing capability at a cost of billions of dollars, and it is seeking billions more for a new facility. This poor decision teaches a broader lesson: It would be much more costly to cut now and build back up later, rather than simply recapitalize current capabilities.
To justify kneecapping the U.S. arsenal as we enter a second nuclear age, the savings would have to be overwhelming. But they are not. As Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter recently said, "Nuclear weapons don't actually cost that much.… You don't save a lot of money by having arms control."
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