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The Cost of Funding Suicide

Although the costs of maintaining the United States’ current nuclear arsenal are not broken out separately in any federal budget, including that of the Defense Department, they are estimated to be between $20-25 billion per year. Additionally, President Obama has gotten congressional approval for a program to “modernize” our nuclear arsenal, and that program does have a budget, which is $318 billion over 10 years, and which the National Defense Panel, appointed by Congress, found could be as much as a $1 trillion over the next 30 years.

The U.S. currently has 7,200 nuclear weapons, second only to Russia, which has 7,500. Both the U.S. and Russia, via the START treaty, have agreed to reduce deployed nuclear warheads to 1550 and missile launchers (missile tubes and bombers) to half that by 2018 (there are fewer launchers than warheads because one launcher, e.g. a bomber, can carry multiple warheads). The number of non-deployed warheads remains unlimited. Although these numbers seem promising, the fact is that the number of deployed nuclear weapons by both the U.S and Russia is nearly at these levels already and nuclear stockpiles are not touched by the agreement.

Despite occasional calls for their use by some politicians, nuclear weapons are not useful as a strategic weapon in any modern war scenario. One could argue that the only time such weapons were used, in Japan in 1945, they were, in fact strategically useful, but even that is debatable, given post-war reports that Japan was almost ready to surrender, that U.S. losses in an invasion would have been far less than projections given by our government in defense of our use of such bombs, and that Russia was poised to invade Japan anyway (perhaps the real reason we wanted to end the war quickly). At any rate, America’s use of such weapons in 1945 was predicated on the premise that no one else but the U.S. had such weapons and no retaliation in kind was possible. That situation no longer applies. Nine countries are known to have nuclear weapons, and several more are interested in developing them.

The real reason for both our and Russia’s massive nuclear arsenals, as well as China’s, India’s, Pakistan’s, the U.K.’s, France’s, and Israel’s, is as a deterrent to each country’s adversary using such weapons against them. An attack by one nuclear armed country against another would trigger a counterattack in a scenario known as Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD), that is thought to be (and had been) enough to prevent anyone using such weapons.

But mutual assured destruction doesn’t require thousands of nuclear weapons. Estimates are that around a total of 100 such weapons, flying in whatever direction, would effectively cause such damage to both people, cities, and the environment, to threaten all life on the planet. That’s 50 weapons per side in a two-sided conflict. Hopefully, political and military leaders of nuclear-armed countries don’t require planetary destruction as a deterrent to using their nuclear arsenals. With far fewer weapons, massive civilian casualties on a scale never encountered in previous conflicts could be inflicted, undoubtedly on both sides of any such war.

The world would be safer with no nuclear weapons extant. However, a reasonable argument can be made that the mutual presence of nuclear weapons deters not just a nuclear war between two countries, but also an all-out traditional war. The threat is always that whichever side found itself losing such a war would be tempted to use its nuclear weapons to defeat its enemy, even at the risk of it is own destruction, thus even a traditional war must be avoided. This has been the argument for why the U.S. and the Soviet Union endured decades of a “Cold War” instead of a hot one.

Even if nuclear weapons provide a real, although ultimately suicidal, deterrent against active “hot” wars between major powers, the number of nuclear weapons necessary to constitute such a deterrent is small – less than 100 for sure and perhaps less than 50 per side. The “Cold War” began when both the U.S. and the Soviet Union had only a handful of nuclear weapons each, but it was enough to deter a hot war. The use of even less than 100 nuclear weapons would still be catastrophic for both the participants in such a war and the rest of the planet, but the cost of their maintenance would be a pittance compared to what the U.S. and several other countries are spending right now.

Billions of dollars and over the next several decades, trillions of dollars could be saved and devoted to civilian projects by eliminating or reducing our nuclear arsenals to less than 100 warheads. This would be true not just for the U.S. but also for Russia and any other country (France, China, U.K., Pakistan and India at the moment), which has more than 100 weapons.

But how would a willing U.S. convince the rest of the world, including Russia and China, who are skeptical of our proposals anyway, to join us in such disarmament? In fact, that is not necessary. If less than 100 (perhaps as few as 50) nuclear weapons assures a country’s ability to destroy its enemy, even in a mutual nuclear war, then more than that many offers no advantage. Thus the U.S. is free to reduce its own nuclear arsenal unilaterally without making us any more vulnerable than if we had thousands of such weapons. By doing so, other countries, seeing our use of our financial resources diverted to enterprises that build our nation domestically, will probably follow suit. Even if they don’t we lose nothing except bragging rights about who has the most nuclear weapons. An excess of nuclear weapons offers no advantage to the nation that possesses it.

In addition to saving billions of dollars and reducing the risk of planetary annihilation, the reduction of nuclear warheads—both deployed and “stockpiled”— to 100 or less and the controlled destruction of the fissionable material that makes up their payloads, would dramatically reduce the risk of terrorists or rogue states getting their hands on such weapons or materials and attacking others with them.

We’ve not seen a serious national discussion about nuclear weapons for a long, long while. In my memory, the last time this issue took center stage in the populace's consciousness was following the release of “Dr. Strangelove,” which brilliantly satirized the issue in 1964, on the eve of the Presidential election. The time has come again for this discussion to take center stage, both for economic and safety reasons. New nations, such as Japan, are agitating for their own nuclear arsenals and some of our presidential candidates favor arming them. The rationale for nuclear arms as a deterrent becomes less clear the more countries that possess such arms, and the danger to humans and the planet increases the more arms there are available.

Someone needs to bring this discussion to the forefront while there is still time to do something to avoid a catastrophe.


Reader Comments (3)

Very nice, thank you.
Nuclear winter sufficient to cause severe famines would probably pop in even lower than the 100 warhead level. Also note the very small warhead size used in calculations http://climate.envsci.rutgers.edu/pdf/WiresClimateChangeNW.pdf

Even very low exchange levels would release tremendous radiation. Imagine one weapon released over Albuquerque NM airport where the adjacent air force base is rumored to store tens of thousands of nuclear warheads. That is way more than enough plutonium to kill all humans on the planet

In reality one weapon is too much

An awesome movie is The Day After https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Day_After
Shown in 1983 it is considered to be why Reagan turned dovish on nukes. It was filmed prior to public knowledge of nuclear winter possibilities. Very powerful film.

Also important to note that all reported US wargames have never stopped at limited engagements. Starting even from the first use of tactical field grade weapons, it has always escalated to all silos empty. Which means ...world destroyed.

And last and least important, the folks that watch this stuff quietly calculate the real cost of the nuke upgrade reaching 3 Trillion. Scariest is that the first upgrade is almost here, the B-61 -12 precision guided, variable yield bomb is almost ready. Extremely dangerous as it is easily a first strike weapon

May 9, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterDariel Garner

Thanks for the comment Dariel. Good information. I too, would favor total nuclear disarmament, but we need to start the discussion on a national level and to begin a discussion the topic needs to remain palatable to all those involved. It may evolve from there. The nuclear weapons upgrade would undoubtedly cost more than the projected 1 Trillion, if only because that is a 30 year projection and further upgrades would be required in that long a period of time. On top of that, virtually all defense projections run over budget. But I'm also not trying to exaggerate anything to allow anyone to dismiss these claims because they clash with those of our Defense Department. Glad you read the commentary. Your comments are always welcome.

May 9, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterCasey Dorman

Casey, this is a very well written article with a lot of common sense included in it. Appreciate your taking the time to research the facts and consider what logically makes sense.

Right now, the biggest consideration serious Americans are facing is how to keep Donald Trump out of office. He is extremely dangerous on many fronts, but is particularly dangerous when we consider his narcissism, poor anger management and lack of common sense. If he were elected, he would be right next to pushing the button on all the missiles you are talking about here. I don't like Hillary Clinton either but she is the lesser of two evils. She does listen to other members of Congress and the military and though she loves war, she has a degree of common sense. Electing Trump and his whorish wife is deeply dangerous on the nuclear front along with how America continues to represent itself in the world. Unfortunately, both of these two damaged presidential candidates will certainly not be responsible for moving forward on saving money for Americans who wish to upgrade jobs, education, other infrastructure.

Thank you for sharing this thoughtful article with us.


Carolyn Gregory

May 10, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterCarolyn Gregory

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