CBRN Assessment

CBO: US nuclear forces to cost USD1.2 trillion over next 30 years

31 October 2017
Twelve next-generation SSBNs (shown in an artist's rendering) are to enter service in the 2030s and operate into the 2080s. Source: General Dynamics Electric Boat

The US Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimated current nuclear force plans would cost USD1.2 trillion, in 2017 dollars, over the 2017–46 period.

This estimate, revealed in a 31 October report, finds more than USD800 billion is necessary to operate and incrementally upgrade US nuclear forces, and USD399 billion is needed to modernise them in that time frame.

Cost estimates for nuclear modernisation can vary widely as some use different metrics and include different items. For example, the US Air Force’s (USAF’s) developmental B-21 Raider strategic bomber also has a conventional mission, so in the past CBO attributed 25% of its costs to the nuclear role, but in this report it used the full cost.

Still, Pentagon officials generally have not disputed that the cost will be significant and potentially difficult to budget into the 2020s.

The current scheme for US nuclear modernisation – developed by the Obama administration – is to update all legs of the ‘triad’. This includes a new nuclear-capable Long Range Standoff (LRSO) cruise missile, 12 Columbia-class ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) to replace the Ohio class, Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) to largely replace silo-based Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), and new Northrop Grumman B-21 Raider long-range nuclear bombers.

All that will come at significant cost, mostly during or just after a projected spike in overall defence modernisation spending because of US Navy shipbuilding requirements and the introduction of new USAF aircraft types.

CBO’s projections, based on plans in the Pentagon’s fiscal year 2017 budget submission, stated that from 2017 to 2046 the nuclear enterprise would need USD772 billion “for the operation, sustainment, and modernization of strategic nuclear delivery systems and weapons”.

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