An unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile launches during an operational test Oct. 29, 2020, at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.

An unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile launches during an operational test Oct. 29, 2020, at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. U.S. Air Force / Tech. Sgt. Patrick Harrower

Estimated Cost of US Nuclear Modernization Jumps During More Expensive Phase

The Congressional Budget Office’s latest estimate puts the next decade’s price tag at $634 billion as some lawmakers try to bring it back down.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the amount of the increase in the projected cost.

The next decade of work to replace America’s nuclear bombers, missile submarines, and ICBMs will cost roughly $35 billion more than expected, about a 7 percent jump, the Congressional Budget Office said in a new report.

The report updates the 10-year projected cost of the Pentagon’s nuclear modernization plan. In 2019, the CBO estimated that the work would cost $494 billion through 2028. The new report, which covers the years 2021 to 2030, puts the cost at $634 billion. About half of the $140 billion difference reflects the planned shift from research and development to the more expensive production phase. Another quarter of the difference reflects anticipated higher inflation.

The final quarter — the $35 billion increase — reflects that projected costs for command, control, communications, and early-warning systems have “increased substantially,” the report says, adding that if full costs of B-52 and B-21 bombers were included, “the total costs of nuclear forces, with cost growth, would be $711 billion.”

It’s the second time CBO has raised their projections for the costs of modernizing U.S. nuclear forces. 

Some lawmakers have balked at what they perceive as the steep price tag for modernizing the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal. Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., has called for a debate specifically on the high cost of replacing the intercontinental leg of the triad. On Monday, he unveiled a new bill, dubbed the SANE act, to cut $73 billion from the U.S. nuclear weapons budget. 

“The United States can deter our adversaries and reassure our allies without making an insane investment in nuclear weapons overkill, including capabilities that may invite, rather than prevent, a nuclear exchange,” he said in a statement. “We must bring the same energy in arresting the climate crisis to reducing another existential threat—that posed by nuclear weapons—and that begins with smart cuts to our nuclear arsenal.”

Gen. John Hyten, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has expressed hope that new digital engineering processes would help suppress costs of building new weapons by reducing the need for some physical prototypes. 

“We have got to make it more affordable,” Hyten told Defense One in April. He said he was working with weapons maker Northrop Grumman, the prime contractor on the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent, or GBSD, program, to bring down the cost. GBSD is the program to replace the aging Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles. 

CBO cautioned that the plans come with “substantial uncertainty,” as “future plans are not yet fully determined for some programs; and estimates of the costs of developing, producing, and operating weapon systems are uncertain even when the plans are fully determined.”