Jeffrey LewisNuclear Weapons Budget, Revisited

Russell Rumbaugh and Nathan Cohn, at the Stimson Center, have a new report out entitled, Resolving Ambiguity: Costing Nuclear Weapons, with a nice companion piece in Arms Control Today.


The report is pretty straightforward — the authors use MFP-1 as the base estimate of DOD nuclear forces spending and then add the things left out.  As I noted the last time we had this discussion, MFP-1 has some issues.  (One of the recommendations of the Secretary of Defense Task Force on Nuclear Weapons recommended replacing MFP 1 with “a new capability portfolio composed of all program elements (whether currently categorized in MFP-1 or elsewhere in the defense program and budget structure) directly related to nuclear deterrence.”

The authors do not fully do that here — rather they use MFP-1 and attempt to add the omitted expenses for command-and-control ($5.3 billion/year), RDT&E activities ($1.5 billion/year), and overhead and support costs ($3.92 billion).  I feel like adding: “Losing six nuclear weapons for 12 hours?  Priceless.”

In particular, Rumbaugh and Cohn provide a very useful accounting of command-and-control expenditures, which are (as best I can tell) arbitrarily excluded from the 1251 report.  Now, I happen to think command and control is one of the areas we should not cut, but we can’t pretend that the nuclear weapons launch themselves.


Despite the title, I don’t think the report “resolves” any ambiguities — I doubt DOD will ever be able to determine what nuclear weapons “cost” — but Rumbaugh and Cohn provide a nice survey of the ambiguities in different estimates, including MFP-1 and the 1251 report, as amended.

The extra $11 billion a year doubles the Administration’s estimate in the 1251 report, as amended ($125 billion over ten years), resulting in total spending on delivery vehicles of over $30 billion a year.  Which is close to what I guessed, just by inflation-adjusting CBO’s estimates from 1998 (inclusive of DOE spending).  Even the command-and-control number is exactly right at $6 billion.  Sometimes the easy way is best, huh?

Although I have some questions about the methodology, all the different back-of-the-envelope calculations are pointing toward a $30 billion/year number.  That’s $300 billion over ten years.  If you add in all the other things that Ploughshares thinks should be counted (nonproliferation, environmental cleanup, missile defense), the result is comfortably north of the Ploughshares “low” estimate of $600 billion and closing in on $700 billion.  (I happen to think some of those things, like environmental cleanup, should count, while others, like missile defense, should not.  But reasonable people can disagree.)


Finally, a observation about the “pushback” against the report.  I find it interesting that Representative Michael Turner’s office chooses to emphasize the fact that Ploughshares provided funds for the study. (Here is where I note that, although I was not a Ploughshares grantee when I wrote a previous post, I am now.  In other news: I am no longer Joe’s gym buddy because I moved to Monterey.  I am still married to the same woman Joe introduced me to.  Biases all clear? Anybody need to go try something anatomically challenging?)

Ploughshares’ funding of the study is a reasonable thing to point out.  But I find it interesting that it is the only thing opponents are pointing out.  There is no specific objection to the methodology or the estimate itself.  More importantly, there is still no positive argument for spending $10, $20 or $30 billion on delivery systems modernization. Just a kind of defensive crouch that the number is less than you think. Such a bargain! I find the inability to articulate a rationale for significant spending on nuclear modernization in a time of austerity very telling.  I also find it a little worrisome.

Rather than articulating a positive case for modernizing the deterrent, House Republicans are just screaming that they had a deal on the New START treaty.  The “they” here is a partisan identification, since the House didn’t have a role in ratification. (Now, I would hasten to add that this was a deal the House GOP blew up, along with pretty much every other deal, by refusing to raise the debt ceiling to pay for expenditures they authorized and appropriated.)

The reason House Republicans are just screaming about perfidy is that they don’t want the Administration to spend the money. My judgment is that House Republicans intend to move to suspend implementation of the New START Treaty next year. This is just their effort at laying the groundwork.

Early on, during the opening phase of the ratification process, I defended the Administration’s decision to massively over-fund the nuclear weapons complex preemptively.  “If you give Republicans a choice between a well-funded nuclear weapons complex and a talking point to conflate the Prague agenda with unilateral disarmament,” I argued, “most will understandably choose the latter.”

I believe that was the correct assessment at the time.  The Administration knew it couldn’t horse-trade with people who didn’t want a deal, so it negotiated long and hard largely to demonstrate that Senator Kyl was not negotiating in good faith.

Moreover, I believe that remains an accurate assessment of most Congressional Republicans, particularly those in the House where opponents of the Obama Administration are only too happy to use any spending cuts to the nuclear weapons budget as an excuse to defund implementation of the New START treaty. A House-led effort to suspend implementation of the New START treaty is now a foregone conclusion, no matter what Barack Obama does or does not do. Whether such an effort succeeds will probably depend largely on the partisan composition of the Senate, as a GOP majority in that chamber after 2012 would be without at least four of the 13 Republicans  — Lugar, Voinovich, Snow and Bennett — who voted for the treaty.  Fully funding CMRR isn’t going to change this.

The result will probably be a full-scale showdown over the Constitution and the treaty power, with the President’s acting like a law professor instead of a politician.  I haven’t really thought through how this is going to play out, but, if the debt-ceiling debacle is any precedent, the New START treaty is in a lot of trouble.


  1. Kingston (History)

    “My judgement is that House Republicans intend to move to suspend implementation of the New START Treaty next year. This is just their effort at laying the groundwork.”

    I’d argue they’ve already moved from intent to action. In addition Turner’s provisions, Rep. Rehberg (R-MT) and Rep. Lummis (R-WY) also offered an amendment on the House floor (which was approved by a vote of 238-162 that would ban any reductions in U.S. strategic delivery systems unless the Secretary of Defense certifies that: 1) further reductions in the Russia Federation’s arsenal are needed for compliance with New START limits; and 2) Russia is not developing or deploying nuclear delivery systems not covered by New START limits. Here’s how Rep. Lummis described the amendment: “This will effectively block the New START Treaty, under which the United States will be forced to reduce its arsenal while Russia will be allowed to dramatically expand its own arsenal.”

  2. Stephen Schwartz (History)

    It’s worth pointing out that Rumbaugh and Cohn do not include any costs associated with intelligence programs and operations supporting the nuclear arsenal, on the grounds that these are classified. But such programs and costs are significant and should not be ignored, even if we cannot assign a specific number to them. Intelligence programs—like command, control, and communications—are critical to the functioning of arsenal as a deterrent force.

    For example, the intelligence community identifies targets and the specific characteristics of targets, essential to the creation and updating of nuclear war plans; it monitors the disposition of the nuclear forces of our adversaries; it tracks nuclear developments by countries such as North Korea and Iran; it helps to ensure compliance with various arms control agreements; it detects and assesses potential threats of nuclear terrorism; it generates and updates the codes necessary to prevent an unauthorized launch and enable an authorized one; it provides damage assessments following nuclear strikes (both to US and allied assets that have been attacked as well as to targets struck by US nuclear weapons), facilitating follow-on attacks and/or war termination; and so on. The entire US intelligence budget (National Intelligence Program plus Military Intelligence Program) is now about $80 billion a year. If even 10 percent of the NIP is dedicated to supporting nuclear weapons, which I don’t think is unreasonable, that adds $5.3 billion to the overall total identified in the report.

    Antisubmarine warfare costs are similarly excluded from the report’s total. Although the strategic ASW mission is smaller than it was during the Cold War, destroying Russian SSBNs (albeit with conventional weapons) remains a key part of the strategic offensive mission. And tasking US attack submarines to attack Russian or Chinese SSNs seeking to destroy our SSBNs also supports the US offensive mission. While classification and operational and budgetary opaqueness obscure these costs, they are not inconsequential.

    In short, actual US spending on nuclear weapons exceeds the careful and conservative $31 billion Stimson estimate.

  3. InsiderThreat (History)

    Random Thoughts on Nuclear Limbo–A Response from the Middle

    First, mirroring House Republican finger-pointing will not solve the problem you outline–suspension of the new START treaty’s implementation. There’s also nothing to suspend–the treaty has a 10-year duration, seventy percent of the time during which neither party must be at, or below, its limits, and you don’t have to reduce to enjoy the transparency provided by its other terms (as I think Russian force posture nicely demonstrates) regarding inspections and etc. You don’t have to notify Moscow that you are withdrawing. You just keep declaring a consistent number. Some go too far in halting all normal weapons complex activity in order to prevent (or force) withdrawal. The debate usefully highlights where we are in the lifetime of the treaty. On its other side, the arms controllers appear vexed about halting reductions, or rather the fact that they are not going to be able to move faster on them and go lower than new START.

    But I do think you are on to something. A view predominates that, if one balks on the deal for new START, then one balks at any deal for even lower numbers or lower numbers themselves, and suspending new START will stop *both* lower numbers and may kill the treaty since the deal is dead. The argument, as I think you try to capture, is that without new START, no reductions would happen at all, even below new START, so we ought to try to work to see that happen since we never accepted the treaty in any case. That, as you correctly point out, has consequences that are grave given the hardened views on both sides and the reality of a treaty in force.

    Second the deal was and is very clear–regardless of the sophistry about it and what it really means now. Former Secretary Gates’ Air Force Association speech (not the 2008 Carnegie speech cited so much, but the one in THIS administration) made the case that these investments were enablers for new START (and beyond, in his case). That’s fundamental to the Senate’s blessing for the treaty provided in 2010 (only for new START, in its case). Reference to Gates is not dispositive but rather demonstrative and descriptive of the deal in 2010.

    Third, we have now a policy of disarmament by default, actually being brought about by the collapse of the deal and motives on either side of the middle that struck it. This is a scenario consistent with administration policy, as far we can tell, and we don’t need to “to conflate the Prague agenda with unilateral disarmament.” It is. According to its press and websites, anyway, which are funded by Global Zero, Ploughshares and etc.

    Fourth, the debate about the MFP, atomic energy defense’s “real cost” and etc. is a smoke screen for the real view held by all those funding these studies: which, taking everything into account appears to consist of forgetting the new START deal, not talking about the number of weapons, the Triad, and the delivery vehicles WE NEED, but rather how we get to zero. New START is supposed to reflect force levels and is based on a supporting analysis of investment and strategy that is credible for 10 years. It wasn’t about Prague or zero. But with no deal, it becomes further proof for those who may properly worry that this administration is not to be trusted given Prague and the truth that many who work for it and support it on the outside are in favor of junking the Triad, accelerating reductions and skipping modernization, all as “modest steps” to a world without nuclear weapons. These guys, in turn, seem not understand that their proselytizing in favor of deep reductions in nuclear spending is only feeding into the arguments behind those who don’t want new START to be a reality, whatever happens.

    Finally, in this debate, I fear a real nuclear limbo–how low can we call go, in bad numbers and budgets, rhetoric, and how far will we go to avoid common sense. Just as arms control is not an end in and of itself, neither is opposing it. Same goes for modernization. What’s left of the middle in this debate increasingly wonders why we bother. A world without transparency, stability and predictability and without investment in modernization is a kind of global zero I would not want to see. But, oddly, everyone in the nuclear limbo line appears to favor it.

    • anon (History)

      I could address and refute many of the points in this post, but lack the time and energy today. One key point, however, is that the long implementation period for New START does not allow complacency about the House’s efforts to stop implementation in FY2013. The Navy and Air Force must plan to spend money years before they spend it, and must begin spending money on reductions years before they actually deactivate missiles and warheads. Nothing happens in a single, or even a few years. While they might be able to make up for lost time if the amount of lost time is small, they cannot implement the treaty in just a year or two at the end. There is money in the budget for implementation this year, and every year.

      It does seem rather odd to stop the implementation of New START because Russia has already made all of its reductions. Would they rather that we only reduce our forces if Russia had far more forces and had taken no steps to meet the treaty limits?

      The real problem with the House language is that it reflects values and views attached to nuclear weapons that are just so divorced from post-Cold War realities, and, in some cases, from Cold War realities. They are just making stuff up to screw with the President’s policies and decades of agreement among strategic thinkers.

    • Kingston (History)

      Right on anon!

    • Jeffrey (History)

      I am not “mirroring” the finger pointing. I am just finger-pointing. (This isn’t the Oval Office or the Senate Chamber, its a blog. That’s part of the job description, especially when you don’t have to worry about some future Senate confirmation.)

      I believe that House Republicans are using the budget crisis (which they created) to undermine the New START treaty (which they would have voted against if they had the opportunity). If the Administration met every single one of Mr. Turner’s funding requests, he would simply come up with new requests. Why? Because that is what Senator Kyl did, leaving poor Bob Corker to stand there in one his exquisite suits (is that pick-stitching?) asking why his colleagues won’t take “yes” for an answer.

      Let’s also be clear about the deal. It isn’t like the expenditures were chiseled on stone tablets and handed to Moses. This was a political, not strategic, process in which Kyl asked for one thing after another, while the Administration kept saying yes. The resulting allocation of funds has no particular merit, other than the political value. Kyl, for his part, was trying to drain the Administration of future leverage for the CTBT. At no point in this process was there an attempt to think through the strategic merits of spending this money. Now that we have a (partisan-induced) budget crisis, the political deal makes no sense. We have to actually figure out what we need, what we can afford and so on.

      As for the policy of disarmament by default, that’s where we are headed. The budget process is an extremely blunt method to force policy change. It is, however, quite an opportunity. As I noted earlier, “The current budget crisis provides the best opportunity to fundamentally realign our approach to nuclear deterrence since the end of the Cold War.” I would rather we do this the easy way — but there is no chance of that. Consider our friend Keith Payne, who endorsed the Strategic Posture Commission’s recommendation for a “modest and straight-forward … successor to the START I agreement before it expires at the end of 2009, then turned around an attacked New START(by mistating key provisions of the treaty, no less.) As you note, the opponents of New START are also fine with nuclear limbo. The Administration can either give in to the likes of Turner and Payne, or drive the car over the cliff. I am voting for the cliff.

      This is going to be very ugly and there is no stopping it. The political stand-off in Washington is likely to do violence to much more than just the nuclear weapons enterprise. It will be a miracle if the geniuses in Congress and the White House manage to avoid presiding over another economic downturn, a catastrophic collapse in US leadership and fundamental break in the social contract. Once they are done burning things to the ground, perhaps I’ll have some more suggestions to ignore about what a nuclear deterrent looks like.

      The one place we agree is in thinking that the Prague Speech was a terrible, horrible mistake. What can I say? We (and I’ll leave the “we” vague) spent several hundred thousand dollars to learn that the speech would have precisely the effect that you’ve described. We provided that information to the relevant persons and were dismissed with a polite pat on the head. Although I happen to think the extremist drift within the Republican Party is the fundamental problem here, I think the Prague speech helped harden attitudes, alienate the dwindling moderates and just generally make life harder for Barry O than it needed to be.

      But, as I said, we told them that. No one listens to me! So, I’ve had several years to let go of any hope for the incremental reforms to nuclear policy that Mort, Arnie and I worked on, which were really quite sensible. Instead, I am just planning on narrating the collapse.

  4. Mark Lincoln (History)

    The ‘Triad’ was just an excuse to justify keeping a nuclear role for obsolete bombers and missile fields up wind of the populated East of the USA.

    Too many careers are involved, to say nothing of war-welfare in the form of installations and personnel, for any change from what is now an ancient regime.

  5. krepon (History)

    Analogy: Walking away from New START to rail against budget woes that reduce defense spending is like downgrading the US credit rating to rail against budget deficits.

  6. InsiderThreat (History)


    Walking away from new START because you never really wanted to do the deal anyway is like walking away from a budget deal because you never really wanted to cut spending. Gloves are off, my friend.

  7. Temporarily Anon

    Jeffrey rightly points out the value of its discussion of C2 costs. These primarily come in the form of military satellite acquisition programs, which are expensive. Plus, their requirements are often driven by the need to function in the most extreme environment (nuclear), which also happens to require more advanced/expensive tech.

    However, I believe that the MUOS system was designed primarily for tactical communications, not strategic ones. You could think of it as the modern-day version of the WWII-era UHF or VHF radios. Just a small quibble.

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