Historically, cost has not played a decisive role in the United States’ nuclear weapons policy. For most of the nuclear age, money for the nuclear enterprise was viewed almost entirely in the abstract: $1 million was just a number and budgets were deemed an irritant. As former Acting Administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration Neile Miller told Congress earlier this year, the U.S. government didn’t spend much time “understanding the cost of things (nuclear weapons) because of the imperative to deliver during the Cold War.”
First, it’s a sad commentary on the current state of the Pentagon that its second highest-ranking official deems $16 billion in taxpayer dollars to be “trivial”. Every billion adds up, especially in a time of budget austerity. Furthermore, claiming that a particular program “is not a big swinger of the budget” tells us nothing about whether the funding level for the program is appropriate.
Second, Carter vastly understates annual U.S. spending on nuclear weapons. The $16 billion figure he cites as the Pentagon’s share of the nuclear weapons budget excludes spending on many programs that directly support the nuclear mission, including research and development and many essential operations and support activities. According to a detailed 2012 report by the Stimson Center, the total cost to the Pentagon of just the long-range offensive nuclear forces in fiscal 2011 was $22.7 billion.
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