The Economics of Nuclear Arms Reductions

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The Economics of Nuclear Arms Reductions

America’s nuclear arsenal is expected to cost $648 billion over the next decade. Obama’s proposed reductions would save $58 billion.

In an important speech today at Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, U.S. President Barack Obama called for further reductions to the U.S. and Russian nuclear arms stockpiles.

In the relevant part of the speech, President Obama declared:

“After a comprehensive review, I’ve determined that we can ensure the security of America and our allies, and maintain a strong and credible strategic deterrent, while reducing our deployed strategic nuclear weapons by up to one-third.  And I intend to seek negotiated cuts with Russia to move beyond Cold War nuclear posture. At the same time, we’ll work with our NATO allies to seek bold reductions in U.S. and Russian tactical weapons in Europe.”

Under the New START agreement signed by Russia and the U.S. during Obama’s first term, Russia and the U.S. pledged to cut their deployed strategic nuclear forces down to 1,550 warheads by 2018 (although the actual number might be slightly higher because bombers are counted as one warhead even if they carry more than that.) The treaty did not address tactical nuclear weapons, which the U.S. and Russia deploy in Europe.

Assuming Obama was talking about reducing strategic stockpiles by one-third from the New START Treaty, this would leave the U.S. and Russia with roughly a 1,000-1,100 deployed strategic forces.   

Most experts in the arms control community agree that the U.S. could maintain a credible deterrent at this level or lower. Indeed, before becoming Defense Secretary, Chuck Hagel signed his name onto a report that suggested looking into reducing America’s strategic forces down to 450 warheads.

Proponents of further nuclear weapon reductions often point to a number of strategic and security benefits that would supposedly come from reducing nuclear stockpiles, including lowering the chance of an accidental nuclear launch or nuclear terrorist attack, and reducing the incentive non-nuclear weapon states have to pursue their own nuclear forces.

Whatever the merits of these arguments, the most compelling argument for why Russia and the U.S. should further reduce the size of their nuclear arsenal is economic in nature. Indeed, economic-based arguments for further arms reductions would almost certainly be the most effective means of persuading the principal opponents of a new nuclear agreement—Republicans in Congress and the Russians.

As I’ve argued before, the enormous costs of maintaining a nuclear arsenal are too often neglected in nuclear debates. Calculating the total costs of a nation’s arsenal is an immense task, but one notable effort calculated that America's nuclear weapons program cost US$5.8 trillion from 1940 to 1996. According to the Arms Control Association, a non-profit organization dedicated to reducing nuclear weapon stockpiles, the U.S. currently spends about US$31 billion annually on simply maintaining its existing nuclear weapons arsenal.

Modernizing U.S. nuclear forces and delivery systems will be immensely expensive as well, and threaten to erode America’s conventional military capabilities in a time of greater austerity.  According to a September 2012 report by Ploughshares Fund, when modernization efforts are included, the U.S. nuclear arsenal will cost US$640 billion over the next decade, more than doubling the current annual price tag. It’s worth noting that actual costs of nuclear and other defense programs often far exceed anticipated costs.

Although cost estimates are harder to come by for Russia’s nuclear forces, Moscow is also planning on modernizing its forces. Furthermore, it is likely to be as constrained or more constrained fiscally than the United States.

By pledging to reduce stockpiles down to 1,000 deployed strategic forces, the U.S. and Russia could lighten the burden their nuclear forces will have on government budgets. In fact, in the March 2013 Arms Control Association report cited above, the organization estimated that bringing nuclear forces down to this level would save American taxpayers around US$58 billion. This figure could be increased if the U.S. decided to remove its 150-180 tactical nuclear weapons from Europe.

Given the growing conventional challenges both countries face from China’s military, this could be money well saved.