“By the way, it isn’t me cutting the budget. It’s the Congress’s decision on sequestration. So it isn’t secretary of defense or the president doing this, and I think we should clear that up a little bit here, too. Where are we making decisions and how do we make them, that’s a responsibility I have. But also the physical constraints that are being placed on the Pentagon to make very tough choices here are very significant.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.): “Mr. Hale, what percentage of GDP [gross domestic product] are we spending on our national defense in this budget?”
Undersecretary of Defense (Comptroller) Robert F. Hale: “In ’15 it’ll be about 3.2 percent for DOD.”
“Some in Washington still want to spend $700 billion on old outdated Cold War Programs”
--Advertisement from the American Security Project which aired during the GOP Debate on Nov. 22, 2011
“The United States is projected to spend an estimated $700 billion on nuclear weapons and related programs during the next ten years.”
--Ploughshares Fund Working Paper, Version 2, Sept. 27, 2011
In these grim economic times, the cost of maintaining and upgrading the United States’ aging nuclear arsenal of 5,000 warheads is certainly a ripe topic for discussion. The U.S. government has never officially disclosed the exact cost, and whether one should include environmental clean-up costs, missile defense and other programs related to nuclear weapons is a legitimate topic of debate.
In recent weeks, a fierce fight has broken out in the nuclear world over an estimate issued by Ploughshares Fund—a foundation focused on nuclear policy—that the United States will spend $700 billion over the next ten years on “nuclear weapons and related programs.” That estimate has stuck and become part of the public discourse, appearing in the recent advertisement and a letter by Rep. Edward Markey(D-Mass.), often without the caveat of “related programs.”
But the administration of President Obama—who won a Nobel Peace Prize in part for calling for a world without nuclear weapons—has flatly rejected the $700 billion figure. James Miller, principal deputy undersecretary of defense, told Congress on Nov. 2 that the figure was close to $214 billion over ten years, with $88 billion being spent at the Energy Department, which maintains nuclear weapons, and more than $125 billion spent on delivery systems at the Defense Department.
“I've had an opportunity to look at some of the materials that were referenced in the cost estimates just before coming over here and I—without giving this more time than it deserves—suffice it to say there was double counting and some rather curious arithmetic involved,” Miller said.
There is such a large gap between $700 billion and $200 billion that some readers asked us to look into the matter. To put it in perspective, the gap between these two estimates would fund the State Department and all foreign aid for the next decade. Hang on, there are lots of numbers, but it is an important issue.
First of all, Ploughshares is counting a lot of things that the administration is not including in its estimate. As the spreadsheet below shows, the group included such things as the costs of missile defense (on the theory that it exists only to protect America against nuclear weapons) and environmental clean-up. As we said, there is a legitimate debate about whether or not to include such items—is missile defense needed even if the U.S. gives up all of its nukes?--but those items account for nearly $270 billion of the Ploughshares figure.