Recommended Action Items for Congress

While the third wave of nuclear modernization poses significant challenges, it need not prevent the United States from continuing to field a powerful and credible nuclear force sufficient to deter nuclear attack against the United States and its allies. As noted in the previous section, scores of billions of dollars could be freed up by eliminating the Trump administration’s proposals for new warheads and infrastructure, scaling back or delaying new delivery systems, and taking a more disciplined approach to rebuilding warheads and their supporting infrastructure. The United States can more cost-effectively maintain a triad and the number of nuclear warheads it plans to deploy under New START. Further reducing the size of the arsenal and eliminating the ICBM leg of the triad would allow for even greater savings.

As the new 116th Congress scrutinizes the Trump administration’s nuclear weapons spending plans and considers adjustments to them, there are numerous steps lawmakers should take to enhance affordability and improve their understanding of the underlying
policy assumptions and long-term budget challenges.

In light of the growing price tag to sustain and recapitalize the U.S. nuclear arsenal, the Trump administration’s controversial proposals to expand U.S. nuclear capabilities, the risk of the collapse of the U.S.-Russian arms control architecture, and concerns about the emergence of a new arms race, Congress—specifically the Armed Services, Appropriations, and Intelligence committees—should hold a series of hearings in 2019 and 2020 to examine U.S. nuclear strategy and spending with government officials and non-governmental experts.

Areas of focus should include:

• nuclear targeting doctrine and requirements, including the requirement for prompt launch;

• reduction of the risk of nuclear miscalculation and accidental nuclear use;

• the budget and programmatic challenges facing the nuclear recapitalization effort;

• the rationale and costs of sustaining the ICBM force;

• the threats to nuclear command, control, and communications capabilities and the Pentagon’s plans to upgrade those capabilities;

• the benefits of extending New START and the costs of failing to do so;

• the status of the Pentagon’s implementation of the Trump NPR;

• the impact of the development of increasingly advanced cyber, space, missile defense, long-range conventional strike, and autonomous systems on strategic stability; and

• Russian nuclear doctrine and strategy.

The Trump NPR makes a number of unsupported assumptions about the credibility of U.S. nuclear forces. For example, the review claims that additional low-yield capabilities “will enhance deterrence by denying potential adversaries any mistaken confidence that limited nuclear employment can provide a useful advantage over the United States and its allies.” But the basis for the presumption of “mistaken confidence” is unclear. According to House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Smith, the conclusion that Russia or China might believe the United States would be self-deterred from using the current weapons in its arsenal is “just speculation. I have not seen any in-depth study on that question.”166

Congress should request the Director of National Intelligence to oversee the production of a national intelligence estimate that assesses the views of U.S. adversaries, in particular Russia, on the adequacy of the current U.S. nuclear arsenal. The estimate, which should include an unclassified summary, should address the following issues:

  • whether the Russian leadership believes existing U.S. air-delivered low-yield weapons lack credibility as a response to limited Russian nuclear use;
  • whether the Russian leadership believes the United States would be self-deterred from using higher-yield weapons in response to a limited nuclear strike;
  • the conditions under which Russia would resort to using nuclear weapons on a limited basis against the United States or a U.S. ally;
  • the number and diversity of nuclear weapons that is sufficient to deter the Russian leadership from initiating a nuclear attack on the United States, its allies, or partners; and
  • the reasons for Russia’s expansion and modernization of its non-strategic nuclear forces.

The current plans to replace the nuclear arsenal have been crafted to fit within the New START limits. If New START expires in February 2021 with nothing to replace it, U.S. and Russian nuclear forces would be unconstrained. In addition, the Pentagon and intelligence community would have less visibility into Russia’s nuclear capabilities, their force structure, and their modernization plans. To date the Trump administration has shunned talks with Russia on extending the treaty. Congress should ask the Defense Department to provide its unclassified assessment of how the absence of New START would affect U.S. military planning and spending. It should also ask the department and the Director of National Intelligence to estimate the cost of attempting to make up for the loss of the intelligence information provided by New START’s data exchanges and onsite inspection rights and the impact of the treaty’s expiration on Russian nuclear force plans and the nuclear forces plans of other nuclear-armed states. The report from the director should include an unclassified summary.

To send a message to the administration about the importance of sustaining New START, Congress could also consider a prohibition on funding to increase the number of nuclear weapons above the limits set by the treaty, so long as Russia continues to comply with the agreement. Such an approach would guard against a breakout by either side and help to maintain strategic stability in the event the treaty disappears167.

The affordability and execution challenges facing the effort are real and growing and can no longer be ignored. Pressure on the defense budget cannot be relieved solely by reducing nuclear weapons spending but adjusting the plans could yield significant savings.

Congress should require the Pentagon and NNSA to estimate, in an unclassified report, the cost savings from and assess the feasibility and programmatic implications of delaying, reducing the scope of, and eliminating major delivery system replacement programs, warhead life extension programs, and warhead production facility recapitalization programs. In doing so, they should assess options to reduce costs that maintain a deployed strategic nuclear arsenal of 1,550 New START accountable warheads, reduce the size of the arsenal by one-third below the New START limits, and reduce the size of the arsenal by two-thirds below the New START limits.

Section 1043 of the fiscal year 2012 national defense authorization act requires the Pentagon and NNSA to provide an annual estimate of the cost of nuclear weapons over a period of 10 years. In addition, the fiscal year 2013 authorization bill required the CBO to provide Congress with a 10-year estimate of the cost of the arsenal. Congress subsequently required the CBO to update the projected 10-year cost once every two years.

While a 10-year estimate is useful, it only captures a portion of the period during the mid-2020s and mid-2030s when nuclear weapons sustainment and recapitalization costs are slated to peak. In order to be in the best position to exercise effective oversight, steward taxpayer dollars, and weigh tradeoffs, Congress should ask for more information about projected costs over a longer period of time.

Long-term budget projections are of course uncertain. But there is precedent for such estimates. For example, the Navy publishes a 30-year shipbuilding plan and NNSA publishes a 25-year nuclear stockpile plan, both of which include budget estimates. As the CBO notes, longer-range projections are useful because they can help Congress and the Pentagon “in setting appropriate budgets” and “also identify key future issues—when too many programs might need procurement appropriations at the same time, for example…and give decision makers enough time to address them.”168

The Pentagon’s portfolio of 86 major acquisition programs is projected to cost $1.66 trillion. Congress needs a better understanding of the scale of the mismatch between currently projected defense spending and the long list of defense projects the Pentagon and Congress would like to carry out, including nuclear recapitalization, force structure expansion, conventional modernization, research and development on new technologies, and continued investment in readiness and compensation growth. In addition to mandating an unclassified 20-year cost estimate and associated GAO affordability assessment, Congress should ask the Pentagon to explain how it proposes to fund the 2018 National Defense Strategy under different levels of projected defense spending, including scenarios in which planned “efficiencies” from reform do not materialize or defense spending drops back down to the Budget Control Act levels.

Given the controversial utility of ICBMs, the staggering high-side cost risk of the GBSD program, and the limitations on how the 2014 analysis of alternatives to sustain the ICBM force was conducted, Congress should ask an independent entity to conduct its own analysis of alternatives. In particular, the analysis should not assume a requirement to deploy 400 ICBMs in perpetuity. The analysis should include an assessment of the technical feasibility of refreshing the Minuteman III rocket motors and guidance system, the impact of extending the life of the Minuteman III on sustaining the current Minuteman III test rate, the ability of the Minuteman III to achieve its mission in the expected future air defense environment, an assessment of whether existing Minuteman III rocket motors could last without being replaced and if so for how long, and an estimate of the cost sustaining the Minuteman III relative to the cost of building a new missile system. The analysis should also assess alternatives to maintaining ICBMs in a “launch under attack” posture.

Citing the need to protect national security, the Air Force has kept secret the value of its 2015 contract award to Northrop Grumman to build the B-21 as well as the estimated total program acquisition and sustainment costs. Declassifying the cost of bomber will not undermine U.S. security169. But it would help to ensure more effective oversight of one of the Pentagon’s largest and most important programs. According to the late Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), releasing the value of the contract award would not reveal anything about the B-21’s capabilities that could not be gleaned from the information that has already been released170.

The Pentagon has already released substantial information to help solidify political support for the program, but not the essential budget details that would hold the department’s feet to the fire on program outcomes171. The case for greater public disclosure of B-21 costs is strengthened by the fact that Northrop Grumman’s winning contract bid was lower than the Pentagon’s estimate, raising concerns that it was unrealistic172. Moreover, the Defense Department has a long history of underestimating how much its major aircraft acquisition programs will cost173. Fear of a “sticker shock” backlash or embarrassing cost overruns are not legitimate reasons to keep taxpayers in the dark about the price tag of one of the Pentagon’s largest and most important programs.

Navy officials have repeatedly warned that the service’s projected long-term budget is not large enough to accommodate the Columbia-class program and meet its needs for conventional ships. In an attempt to address the Navy’s concerns, Congress in the fiscal year 2015 defense authorization bill created the National Sea-Based Deterrence Fund, a separate budget account outside the Navy’s regular shipbuilding account that would provide a mechanism for the Navy to buy the new boats without reducing funding for its other shipbuilding programs. Congress subsequently expanded the purview of the fund and provided the Navy with special acquisition authorities, such as the ability to buy components for multiple boats in a single bulk purchase, which supporters say could reduce the cost of the new submarines.

But the fund is a gimmick. The extra monies will have to be found somewhere in the Pentagon’s budget with or without the fund, which would be counterproductive because it would force the Army and Air Force help foot the bill for the new submarines174. Congress can also authorize more-efficient acquisition practices in the absence of a separate account. In addition, the fund sets a bad precedent that the other services might try to replicate to fund their highest priority programs. Navigating the disconnect between the scope of the nuclear recapitalization effort and expected defense spending requires making hard choices among different Navy and other Pentagon programs.

The costs and risks of the Trump administration’s nuclear weapons spending plans are compounded by its abdication of the longstanding U.S. leadership role in crafting and sustaining a safety net of nuclear arms control, nonproliferation, and restraint agreements.

Congress should support both extending New START and adjusting the spending because doing so makes sense for U.S. security. But lawmakers should make it clear to the administration that there will be consequences for not upholding the arms control end of the 2010 “bargain” that helped to ensure Senate approval of New START and to keep the fragile bipartisan support for recapitalizing the nuclear arsenal175. As Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Robert Menendez (D-NJ) noted last September, “bipartisan support for nuclear modernization is tied to maintaining an arms control process that controls and seeks to reduce Russian nuclear forces…We’re not interested in writing blank checks for a nuclear arms race with Russia176.” Congress should demand that in return for funding a reasonable and affordable nuclear weapons sustainment program, the Trump administration must pledge to, at a minimum, pursue a comprehensive strategy to mitigate the consequences of withdrawing from the INF Treaty and prevent the renewal of a missile race in Europe, support an extension of New START, and commit to a regular dialogue on strategic stability with Russia and China.


  1. Adam Smith, “Nothing Endangers the Planet More Than Nuclear Weapons,’” Arms Control Today, December 2018. Located at: https://
  2. Daryl Kimball, “How Congress Can Leverage Action on New START,” Arms Control Today, March 2019. Located at:
  3. U.S. Congressional Budget Office, “The Cost of Replacing Today’s Air Force Fleet.”
  4. Kingston Reif and Mandy Smithberger, “America’s New Stealth Bomber has a Stealthy Price Tag, Defense One, May 21, 2018. Located at:
  5. John M. Donnelly, “Contractor Won Weak Bomber Oversight, McCain Says,” Roll Call, December 13, 2016,
  6. Dan Grazier, “Business as Usual Building a New Bomber,” Project on Government Oversight, March 17, 2016. Located at:
  7. Jeremiah Gertler, “Air Force B-21 Raider Long-Range Strike Bomber,” Congressional Research Service, October 12, 2018. Located at:
  8. “The Air Force B-21 Raider Attack on Your Wallet,” Taxpayers for Common Sense, October 4, 2016. Located at: national-security/golden-fleece-the-air-force-b-21-raider-attack-on-yourwallet/.
  9. Mackenzie Eaglen and Rick Berger, “Navy’s Deterrence Fund Is Just Another Washington Budget Gimmick,” Real Clear Defense, January 10, 2017. Located at: navys_deterrence_fund_is_just_another_washington_budget_ gimmick_110616.html.
  10. Kingston Reif, “Fact Sheet: New START and Nuclear Modernization Funding,” Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation, August 22, 2013. Located at:
  11. Kingston Reif, “Republican Senators Back New START,” Arms Control Today, October 2018. Located at: act/2018-10/news/republican-senators-back-new-start.

U.S. Nuclear Excess

The projected cost of the proposed U.S. nuclear spending spree is staggering and it is growing. The United States currently plans to spend nearly $500 billion, after including the effects of inflation, to maintain and replace its nuclear arsenal over the next decade. Over the next 30 years, the price tag is likely to top $1.5 trillion and could even approach $2 trillion. This report describes the ways in which this level of spending is unnecessary, unsustainable, and unsafe. It outlines three realistic options to reduce spending on nuclear weapons while still maintaining a devastating nuclear deterrent. The report also recommends key steps Congress can take to enhance affordability and improve its understanding of the underlying policy assumptions and long-term budget challenges.

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