A Call to Rethink Priorities

The Trump administration requested nearly $49 billion in nuclear weapons-related spending for fiscal year 2021. Over the next three decades, the U.S. is slated to spend $1.7 trillion on nuclear modernization plans, which include programs that go far beyond mere safety and survivability measures. In the midst of a pandemic that caught U.S. leaders unprepared and health services underfunded, it is clear the U.S. needs to rethink its plans to invest in unnecessary, dangerous, and expensive nuclear weapons programs.

The 2018 Nuclear Posture Review, the guiding document for Trump administration nuclear policy, maintains the nearly $2 trillion nuclear modernization plan and calls for new nuclear weapons, including so-called “low-yield” nuclear weapons. Proponents of the review often argue the nuclear budget is a small percentage of the overall defense budget. It’s true. And completely misleading. 

The United States spends more on defense than the next ten countries combined. That nuclear-related small percent of the Department of Defense budget request for next year is $28.9 billion more than twice the request for the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, and more than two-thirds of the entire State Department request. And that’s only part of the total nuclear weapons budget — another $19.8 billion was requested by the Department of Energy for nuclear-weapons-related work. 

There’s another way. In 2018, Global Zero released the Alternative U.S. Nuclear Posture Review (Alt NPR) a blueprint for U.S. nuclear security based on a no-first-use policy, taking nuclear weapons off high alert so they are not ready to launch within minutes, and fixing vulnerable nuclear command and control systems. Our report shows how the U.S. can reduce its nuclear force by over two-thirds, saving billions while maintaining an effective deterrent and setting the stage for all nuclear-armed states to work together on real steps toward zero. 

Key changes to the arsenal include:

1. Eliminate silo-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).

The U.S. plans to replace the Minuteman III ICBMs with the new Ground Based Strategic Deterrent. The Alt NPR calls for ICBMs to be taken off high alert and phased out of the nuclear force. These weapons are vulnerable and redundant, causing more risk than any perceived benefit.

Estimated savings: $149 billion over 30 years*

2. Reduce the submarine force from 12 to 5 subs.

The U.S. also plans to replace its nuclear ballistic missiles submarines with 12 new submarines, spending an estimated $14 billion on the first sub and an average of $7.4 billion on each additional sub. Under the Alt NPR, the U.S. would maintain a second-strike capability through a survivable monad of five submarines, patrolling the oceans virtually undetectable.

Estimated savings: $65 billion over 30 years

3. No new sea-launched cruise missile.

The Trump NPR calls for a new sea-launched cruise missile with no evidence for such a need. The Alt NPR recognizes there is no military value in these weapons as they discount the value of non-nuclear deterrent forces and would increase the risk of nuclear use and uncontrollable escalation to all-out nuclear conflict.

Estimated savings: $9 billion over 10 years

It is vital to ensure nuclear arsenals are safe and secure while nuclear-armed states work together toward the elimination of nuclear weapons. But the current U.S. nuclear budget is irresponsibly bloated. There are immediate changes the U.S. can and should make to its nuclear policy to not only reduce nuclear risk, but free up vital resources that can be used to tackle real security challenges such as climate change, pandemics, and cyberattacks.

This is not just a U.S. problem. According to a 2011 Global Zero study, nuclear-armed states spent an estimated $1 trillion on nuclear weapons from 2011-2020. When the report was released, the cost for maintaining one nuclear weapon could have covered healthcare for 36,000 Americans or bought 99,000 square feet of solar panels. When asked what world leaders should prioritize over nuclear weapons, Global Zero supporters highlighted clean energy, healthcare, and social services.

Imagine what could have been accomplished if just half of the $1 trillion spent on nuclear weapons programs globally was reallocated to preparing for global pandemics, addressing climate change, or ensuring access to education. Instead, it was spent on weapons of mass destruction.

Leaders in the U.S. and other nuclear-armed states need to shift their priorities, to realize we are needlessly spending ourselves into a cycle of costly instability and increasing nuclear risk while ignoring real, urgent security needs. If we learn nothing from the current pandemic, we’re doomed to repeat our mistakes. 

We can’t afford to wait for another disaster to act.

*All savings estimates are based on numbers from Congressional Budget Office (CBO) reports and author personal communication with CBO analysts.

**Cartoon by Enrico Orr (enrico_orr on Instagram)