The federal government is low when calculating the amount it spends on the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal, says a new report, and several longtime atomic arms analysts say government officials have no clue how much the world's most lethal weapons really cost.
The Stimson Center released a study Tuesday that concludes Washington will spend between $352 billion to $392 billion over the next decade to modernize its nuclear fleet. The think tank's researchers dove into Pentagon budget documents to conclude the Defense Department pegs the same costs between $221 billion to $244 billion.
"Official estimates [rely] on a narrow definition of the nuclear enterprise, or even of strategic nuclear offensive forces, understate the actual costs the United States spends on nuclear weapons without settling once and for all what is the single right cost of the nuclear enterprise," states the report.
Stimson and other nuclear arms experts said it is difficult for even professional analysts to accurately determine how various aspects of the nuclear fleet cost, mainly because the federal government hasn't been forthcoming with their own figures.
"There is no one in the government today who knows what we're spending ... on tactical or strategic nuclear weapons," says Stephen Schwartz of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.
That is partly because the U.S. nuclear program was born under a thick veil of secrecy, and has never fully emerged. It also is partially because "DOD's books are totally unauditable."
All those factors make it tough to pinpoint the cost of the atomic arms. Since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. has shrunk its nuclear fleet. As the annual Pentagon budget becomes smaller, nuclear opponents in Congress are pushing for further reductions.
Robert Zarate of the Foreign Policy Initiative acknowledges nuclear arms are expensive to modernize and maintain, but he says the fleet accounts for just 4.4 percent of the Pentagon's annual budget, which tops $500 million annually.
Several forces, however, are converging that will raise "new questions" for U.S. lawmakers and officials about the American atomic fleet.
One example is the prospect for $500 billion in new national defense cuts over the next decade, that Pentagon officials say would cause them to cut a certain percentage from all the military accounts. Another is the possibility that multiple Middle Eastern nations soon will become nuclear-armed.
John T. Bennett covers national security and foreign policy for U.S. News & World Report. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter.