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What Price Deterrence? June 8, 2010

Posted by Guest Blogger in Analysis.
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Stephen I. Schwartz is editor of the Nonproliferation Review published by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. He is also the editor and co-author of Atomic Audit: The Costs and Consequences of U.S. Nuclear Weapons Since 1940 and the principal author of Nuclear Security Spending: Assessing Costs, Examining Priorities.

By Stephen I. Schwartz

As part of its push to secure Senate ratification of the New START arms reduction agreement, the Obama administration recently revealed its intention to spend more than $180,000,000,000 “over the next decade” to sustain and modernize U.S. nuclear weapons delivery systems and the nuclear weapons production complex. With Senate Republicans insisting for months that support for the treaty hinges in large measure on a specific plan to invest in the future of the nuclear arsenal—and in particular the facilities that design, test, and manufacture nuclear warheads—such a move was not surprising, although the actual figure was higher than many expected.

Even in Washington, D.C., $180 billion is a great deal of money, in both absolute and relative terms. But there two key questions: How does this compare to spending in previous years, and how much would have been spent absent a new master plan and efforts to obtain 67 votes and secure passage of New START and the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty?

Policymakers, elected officials, and voters may be surprised to learn that there is no easy way to answer those questions because there is not and never has been a nuclear weapons line item in the federal budget. No one in the government can say with certainty how much has been or is being spent on the entire nuclear weapons program.

The Department of Defense (DOD) presents the biggest challenge. For nearly 50 years, the only detailed measure of nuclear weapons spending has been Major Force Program 1 (MFP 1), which includes most but not all expenditures for strategic nuclear forces, including intercontinental ballistic missiles, ballistic missile submarines, and strategic bombers (even though all bombers today are dual-capable and spend most of their time performing conventional missions).

According to the DOD, for fiscal 2010, this total amounts to $12.8 billion. But this figure—which is $2.2 billion higher than the average annual spending for the past decade—does not include research and development, command, control, and communications, some operations and maintenance costs, or any costs associated with nonstrategic nuclear weapons in the United States or Europe. Neither does it include any classified programs, including the substantial intelligence-related costs associated with sustaining the nuclear arsenal.

In my 2009 report Nuclear Security Spending: Assessing Costs, Examining Priorities, I estimated that in fiscal 2008, the DOD spent at least $22.5 billion on nuclear forces and operational support, not including intelligence or other classified programs. This is a conservative estimate, using the same methodology developed for a more comprehensive historical survey I led in the mid-to-late 1990s.

DOD’s most recent budget documents estimate that from 2010-2015, MFP 1 will consume $66.2 billion, or about two-thirds of the “well over $100 billion” the administration now says it plans to spend to operate, maintain, and enhance nuclear delivery systems. At least through fiscal 2015, the last year for which DOD provides spending projections, spending for MFP 1 stays relatively constant. So another unanswered question is whether this “well over $100 billion” is in addition to current projections, included in them, or some mix of the two. Congress, and taxpayers, deserve to know.

Things are a little clearer over at the Department of Energy (DOE), which through the National Nuclear Security Administration operates the nuclear weapons production complex and maintains the nuclear stockpile (despite its name, two-thirds of the DOE’s budget is dedicated to nuclear weapons and weapons-related programs).

DOE’s budgets, while not perfect, are significantly more transparent. For fiscal 2008, spending associated with the U.S. nuclear arsenal was about $6.6 billion. According to the White House, spending for “stockpile sustainment and infrastructure” will increase in the coming years, to $7.4 billion in 2014, $8.4 billion in 2016, and $9 billion in 2018, before dropping slightly to $8.8 billion in 2020.

These are significant sums, and are clearly an increase over current levels (of particular note is that the $9 billion peak is 43 percent higher than the $5.1 billion average annual expenditure during the Cold War, when both production and testing of nuclear weapons were still underway), but as with projected DOD expenditures, it’s not entirely clear how much of that money would have been spent anyway. Nongovernmental watchdogs are already warning about wasteful spending, and the risk these significant investments—proposed primarily for political reasons—could lead to the development of new nuclear weapons.

Whether or not these spending increases are fully enacted, citizens and their elected officials have a right to know how their money is being spent, especially on matters of national defense and particularly in a time of fiscal austerity. But when it comes to nuclear weapons, this is not possible. To remedy this situation, Nuclear Security Spending recommended that:

Congress should require the executive branch to prepare and submit annually, in conjunction with the annual budget request, an unclassified and classified accounting of all nuclear weapons–related spending for the previous fiscal year, the current fiscal year, and the next fiscal year. The DOD, using its Future Years Defense Program, should project its nuclear weapons–related spending five or six years into the future.

A senior White House official—perhaps within the congressionally mandated office to coordinate nuclear proliferation and counterterrorism efforts or the National Security Council—should be responsible for overseeing this annual exercise, in conjunction with relevant officials of the Office of Management and Budget and senior budget officials of key departments and agencies.

Once this is done, Congress should ask Government Accountability Office to audit the nuclear budget for accuracy and completeness, and then make sure the executive branch refines it for future years. To the maximum extent possible, this accounting should be unclassified (just like the latest Nuclear Posture Review). There is little if any need to keep secret the specific amounts of money being expended for nuclear weapons programs. If the Obama administration can reveal for the first time the total number of weapons in the arsenal, there’s no reason why the ongoing cost of these weapons must remain classified, or at least largely inaccessible.

Proponents of increased spending should support such a measure, not just because it’s good government but also because it will help them monitor spending and support their position. Similarly, critics of nuclear weapons, and fiscal conservatives, will be better able to identify waste and demonstrate how reductions in the size of the arsenal, or changes in how weapons are deployed, can help reduce costs.

Executive branch officials will balk, of course, for bureaucratic reasons (It’s hard work! It’s not my job!), and also because many won’t want the nuclear nooks and crannies exposed to the light of day (for obvious but largely unpersuasive reasons). But once a framework is established and agreed upon, it will be a simple matter to plug in the new numbers each year. Within a few years, trends will begin to emerge, which could lead to more insightful debates and rational decisions about nuclear spending and the role nuclear weapons should play in our national defense.

Almost 65 years after the creation of nuclear weapons, why should Congress and the public be continually in the dark about their true costs?

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