The Real Cost of Nuclear Modernization

AFA's Mitchell Institute estimates the true cost of modernizing the nuclear forces may be significantly lower than the Congressional Budget Office's hefty $1.2 trillion price tag, which included 100 percent of the cost of the future B-21 bomber program (a possible configuration of that program is illustrated here) rather than just the nuclear-specific costs of that program. Staff Illustration by Mike Tsukamoto; USAF B-2 photo by SrA Christopher Bush.

The true cost of modernizing US nuclear forces may be less than half the $1.2 trillion price tag recently published in a report by the Congressional Budget Office.

“The actual cost likely to be incurred to modernize our nuclear deterrent posture … will be less than $399 billion,” according to retired Lt. Gen. David Deptula, dean of AFA’s Mitchell Institute, and Peter Huessy, Mitchell’s director of strategic deterrent studies.

The CBO report says that over 30 years, it will cost $843 billion to operate and sustain, or incrementally upgrade, nuclear forces, and $399 billion “to modernize them.” But the operations and sustainment money “will continue to be paid irrespective of nuclear modernization decisions,” Deptula and Huessy write in an op-ed in The Hill, and that amount should not be considered part of the cost of modernization, which they say is likely to “reduce current O&S costs” any way.

They also fault the CBO’s decision to include “100 percent of the cost of the Air Force’s future B-21 bomber program” in its nuclear modernization estimate. Previous estimates included only the nuclear-specific costs of that program, which amount to about 25 percent of the total, they write.

As published, Deptula and Huessy say the CBO estimate includes, “the salaries, housing allowances, medical care, and related sustainment costs of all the bomber pilots, maintainers, missileers, and submarine captains serving in the nuclear mission” as part of nuclear modernization costs. But those costs will be paid whether the remaining force are modernized or not.

After subtracting these day-to-day costs, the Pentagon’s current nuclear modernization plans will total “less than $13.3 billion per year,” they write.