Current plans to modernize, operate and sustain U.S. nuclear forces will cost about $1.2 trillion over the next three decades, according to a report released Oct. 31 by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO).

Modernization will account for about $400 billion of that total, while operations and sustainment will take up the other $800 billion, the CBO estimated. The total annual cost of nuclear forces is projected to jump from $29 billion in 2017 to about $50 billion in the early 2030s, before gradually falling to about $30 billion.

The Air Force in 2016 unveiled the name of the future B-21 bomber: the "Raider."  (Credit: Marc Selinger/Defense Daily)
The Air Force in 2016 unveiled the name of the future B-21 bomber: the “Raider.” (Credit: Marc Selinger/Defense Daily)

Major modernization efforts that are underway include the Navy’s new Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine, the Air Force’s new B-21 Raider bomber and the Air Force’s new intercontinental ballistic missile, known as the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent.

Other modernization programs include a new air-launched cruise missile for Air Force bombers, a new ballistic missile for Navy submarines, and a series of life extensions for bombs and warheads.

The CBO report suggests that finding a way to pay for all of these efforts will be challenging for policymakers.

“During the peak years of modernization, annual costs of nuclear forces would be roughly double the current amount,” the CBO wrote. “That increase would occur at a time when total defense spending may be constrained by long-term fiscal pressures, and nuclear forces would have to compete with other defense priorities for funding.”

Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, said the report is the first official independent assessment of current nuclear spending plans and that it underscores his concerns that those plans are unaffordable and should be reexamined.

“Congress still doesn’t seem to have any answers as to how we will pay for this effort, or what the trade-offs with other national security efforts will be,” said Smith, who requested the report in March with Rep. Pete Visclosky (D-Ohio), ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee’s defense panel.

Smith added that he hopes the Department of Defense’s ongoing nuclear posture review “takes a hard look at what our requirements are to maintain a strong but affordable deterrent, without breaking the bank or exacerbating a new nuclear arms race.”

The results of the nuclear posture review are due to President Donald Trump by year’s end.

The CBO suggested that DoD could save tens of billions of dollars by delaying modernization or reducing the size of the force. But some military leaders have argued against such cuts, saying that existing systems are wearing out and cannot be extended any further and that it would be unwise to shrink the nuclear deterrent amid growing threats from potential adversaries.