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The Basics: How Much Does the US Spend on Nuclear Weapons?

Words: Laicie Heeley
Pictures: Mark Heeley

In light of President Trump’s suggestion that, hey, we might want to spend more money to increase the size of the US nuclear arsenal — or maybe not — here are five quick and dirty facts on what we currently spend:

  • Trump’s first budget proposal pushes forward with the Obama administration’s plan to rebuild the US nuclear arsenal — which includes all three delivery systems, the weapons themselves, and the infrastructure that supports it all.
  • Gen. Paul Selva told Congress in March 2017 that since Russia and China are also currently in the process of rebuilding their nuclear forces, the current path would help the US to retain its advantage over time. Nuclear experts have argued that we can counter today’s threats with less.
  • Experts have noted that the cost to upgrade the arsenal comes to about 5 percent of the Pentagon’s budget. But, the Pentagon’s budget is almost $700 billion – enough to literally buy the world a coke… once a week for a year. So that’s still a whole lot. The total to rebuild and maintain all three legs of the nuclear triad – air, land, and sea — adds up to more than $1 trillion over 30 years, prompting Republican Senator John McCain to lament in May 2016 that “it’s very, very, very expensive… Do we really need the entire triad, given the situation?”
  • The military doesn’t quite know how it’s going to pay for it all, especially since it’s still stuck under mandatory budget caps. Meanwhile, Trump says he wants a 350 ship Navy – much more than the current fleet of 275 ships. Trump’s plan will cost 60 percent more than the Navy’s 30-year average, and the tradeoffs necessary to make it happen could push the new Columbia-class nuclear sub down the Pentagon’s list.
  • The Trump administration is in the middle of a review that will examine U.S. nuclear policy and strategy, so they could still take this whole thing in another direction. But, given Trump’s rhetoric on nukes, that seems unlikely.

Laicie Heeley

Editor in Chief

Laicie Heeley is the founding CEO of Inkstick Media, where she serves as Editor in Chief of the foreign policy magazine Inkstick and Executive Producer and Host of the PRX- and Inkstick-produced podcast, Things That Go Boom. Heeley’s reporting has appeared on public radio stations across America and the BBC, where she’s explored global security issues including domestic terrorism, disinformation, nuclear weapons, and climate change. Prior to launching Inkstick, Heeley was a Fellow with the Stimson Center’s Budgeting for Foreign Affairs and Defense program and Policy Director at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. Her publications include work on sanctions, diplomacy, and nuclear arms control and nonproliferation, along with the first full accounting of US counterterrorism spending after 9/11.


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