Official Nuclear Weapons Costs Too Low, Arms Control Today Article Finds

June 7, 2012

As Congress debates defense spending and deficit reduction, observers have pointed to U.S. nuclear weapons as a target for budget cuts. Yet, there has been disagreement about the actual costs of nuclear weapons, and estimates vary. Now, using a new methodology, an article in the June issue of Arms Control Today, the journal of the Arms Control Association, finds that the United States spends about $31 billion on nuclear weapons annually, or about 50 percent more than official estimates.

The article, "Resolving the Ambiguity of Nuclear Weapons Costs," by Russell Rumbaugh and Nathan Cohn of the Stimson Center, finds that the differences between previous cost estimates can be explained by two factors: a tendency to count different things, and a Pentagon budget that is hard to fathom. "Once these two issues are addressed," the authors find, "there is little disagreement about the cost of nuclear weapons."

Using a bottom-up approach, the authors' estimate of $31 billion includes $22.7 billion from the Defense Department (delivery systems, command and control, research, and related costs) and $8.2 billion from the Energy Department (nuclear warheads, naval reactors, and related costs). This is $11 billion higher than the official estimate ($20 billion) but significantly lower than some outside estimates. According to Rumbaugh and Cohn, "At the very least, this study should clarify that official estimates relying on a narrow definition of nuclear weapons understate the actual amounts the United States spends on nuclear weapons."

The article finds that it is reasonable to include, as some higher estimates do, the budgets for missile defense, environmental cleanup and nonproliferation under costs of nuclear weapons, but it is also reasonable to leave them out. According to the authors, "the study has demonstrated that nuclear weapons do incur costs greater than the ones the official estimates describe, no matter how narrowly nuclear weapons spending is defined."

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