On Tuesday, the Congressional Budget Office released a report projecting that US taxpayers will spend $1.24 trillion over the next 30 years on modernization and maintenance of the nuclear arsenal—more than $40 billion a year.
Modernization of the arsenal, set in motion under President Obama, entails replacing or refurbishing all three legs of the nuclear triad (intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and nuclear-capable bombers). Advocates for modernization say that the nuclear arsenal, in their telling the linchpin of US national defense, is growing unreliable and obsolete. Opponents characterize modernization plans as too far-reaching and too expensive, especially considering that the Defense Department already faces a severe funding crunch in years to come. Opponents also note that modernization on a multi-decade time scale tends to undercut any argument that the United States intends to honor its disarmament obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
But seriously, can we afford it? Claude Chafin, spokesman for Republican members of the House Armed Services Committee, says that “[t]he price is affordable and the mission is imperative. Those who might argue otherwise ignore the enormous cost of facing an increasingly insecure world with an eroding and uncertain deterrent.” But William Perry, a former defense secretary, and Gen. James Cartwright, a former commander of Strategic Command—two men who know something about security and deterrence—say in a letter to President Trump that “[t]he rising cost of rebuilding the nuclear arsenal is a warning that these plans are unaffordable.”
For context, the federal government spent $3.95 trillion in fiscal year 2016. For more context, congressional Republicans are now contemplating a tax plan that would drain $1.5 trillion from the US Treasury over a decade. So $40 billion begins to seem a little abstract, or even trifling. The real question is whether we should spend so much money to perpetuate nuclear weapons instead of expending some effort to eliminate them.