The United States’ Long Range Strike Bomber, the Ohio-class submarine replacement and the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) programs are the main source of potential budget overruns for the U.S. nuclear forces, according to newly released projections from the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA).

These programs will “drive the potential for cost overruns,” Todd Harrison, senior fellow for defense budget studies at CSBA, said Aug. 4 upon releasing a study on the affordability of nuclear forces. The study notes that “cost growth could add an average of $5 billion per year to the overall cost of nuclear forces in the 2020s,” leading to an added “$112 billion to the cost of nuclear forces over the next 25 years.”

The Air Force test launches a Minuteman III ICBM in September 2010. Photo: Air Force.
The Air Force test launches a Minuteman III ICBM in September 2010. Photo: Air Force.

Cost growth, in turn, raises concerns over the “potential for cost overruns,” the report said. According to Harrison, one of the study’s authors, the largest cost overrun potential belongs to the sea-based leg of the nuclear triad. The report said nuclear weapons activities and sea-launched delivery systems “together constitute an average of 72 percent of the annual funding for nuclear forces over the next 25 years.” Harrison noted that the Ohio-class replacement program in particular drives increases in the latter category.

The report calculated that “the total projected cost of nuclear forces from [fiscal] 2015 to [fiscal] 2039 is $704 billion in then-year dollars” and concludes that “the Pentagon will, indeed, require as much as $12-13 billion per year in additional funding to support nuclear maintenance and modernization during the 2020s, when spending on U.S. nuclear forces will peak.” It said that although nuclear modernization will push defense spending above Budget Control Act limits, spending will drop close to current levels after peaking around fiscal 2027.

Overall, nuclear force costs “will grow by 56 percent in real terms over the next 12 years before declining to near today’s level in the late 2030s,” the report said. Moreover, projected costs will likely remain just under five percent of the total defense budget, “even if the BCA budget caps are extended indefinitely.”

CSBA’s projections are calculated based on the extra costs “needed for nuclear forces above and beyond the needs of conventional [military] forces,” with partial costs calculated for dual-use systems depending on the program’s role in the nuclear mission, the report says. This, it added, accounts for the differences between CSBA’s cost estimates and other oft-cited nuclear force cost calculations, which span “from $73 billion over five years to more than a trillion dollars over thirty years.”

The report said cost overruns might also be forced by nuclear arsenal modernization programs at the departments of Defense and Energy that “have a long and well-documented history of experiencing cost growth.” The report assumed three percent annual funding increases in the National Nuclear Security Administration’s (NNSA) weapons activities budget, which includes “nuclear research laboratories and production facilities, secure transportation, and overall security for nuclear materials, infrastructure, and personnel,” according to Harrison.

“You don’t see the overall level of [NNSA] funding going down,” he said, because “as long as we have any nuclear weapons, there’s a large fixed cost we will have to have to maintain all these labs for testing, and certification, and refurbishment.”

Harrison noted that “specific weapons modernization programs are actually a fairly small amount…of the total weapons funding that’s coming through [the Department of Energy],” in reference to the cost of operating the national labs.

Cost-cutting initiatives might also be in vain while BCA caps remain in effect, according to the report. To address “near-term fiscal pressures,” the report said reductions would have to generate “significant savings between now and [fiscal] 2021, when the BCA’s budget caps are set to expire.” However, assuming consistency in U.S. nuclear force posture, cutting programs would not have significant near-term impact, and would likely “accrue after the expiration of the BCA,” it said.

“The savings aren’t when you’d need them most,” Harrison said.

The report noted that a two percent increase in defense spending “above the BCA level would be sufficient to fund the higher cost of nuclear forces in the 2020s, even without any offsetting cuts elsewhere in the defense budget.” Overall, the problem of funding stems not only from nuclear modernization, Harrison said, but rather from “the confluence of all of these modernization programs, nuclear and conventional, that all seem to be lining up at about the same time in the 2020s.”

He added that while funding the nuclear forces will “absolutely” be a challenge, “is it a matter of affordability? No, it’s a matter of prioritization. If you want to fund these systems, the money is there to do it even under the worst-case scenario here.”