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Profiteers of Armageddon

Explaining the money behind the Pentagon’s nuclear weapons buildup.

Words: William D. Hartung
Pictures: Samson

The Pentagon and the Department of Energy (DOE) are ramping up a three-decades long plan worth up to $2 trillion to build a new generation of nuclear weapons. Major contractors stand to profit mightily from developing and building the next generation of nuclear weapons, and they are doing everything in the power to keep the funds flowing.

There’s plenty of money to be made modernizing the US nuclear arsenal, and a handful of companies are the primary beneficiaries, as noted in a new report by the Center for International Policy.


Nuclear weapons spending is not driven by policy considerations alone. Nuclear modernization is also a big business, and its beneficiaries exert influence over how much is spent and on what systems. Nuclear weapons producers put massive resources into protecting and expanding the money that flows their way from this work, spending millions of dollars on campaign contributions and lobbying efforts every year. While not all of this spending is devoted to lobbying for nuclear-armed bombers, submarines, missiles, and new warheads, these expenditures are indicative of the political clout these companies can bring to bear on Congress as needed to sustain and expand the budgets for their nuclear weapons-related programs. The top seven nuclear weapons contractors — Northrop Grumman, General Dynamics, Huntington Ingalls, Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, Honeywell, and Bechtel — made a total of over $119 million in campaign contributions from 2012 to 2020, including over $31 million in 2020 alone. The companies spent $57.9 million on lobbying in 2020 and employed 380 lobbyists among them. These resources have been used for activities like blocking congressional efforts to cut funding for Northrop Grumman’s new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) as well as for a new sea-launched cruise missile that was given the green light under the Trump administration.

The economic benefits of nuclear weapons spending come at the expense of other public investments that could create many more jobs, but without a coordinated federal effort to bring employment in other sectors, arms makers will continue to have a political advantage over how tax dollars are spent.

Their lobbying efforts and campaign contributions appear to be paying off, as the Biden administration doubled down on the nuclear modernization plan hatched by the Pentagon and DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), including systems that were added by the Trump administration. The proposed FY2022 budget allocates $5 billion for the Columbia Class ballistic missile submarine, to the benefit of prime contractors General Dynamics and Huntington Ingalls. Nearly $2.9 billion for the B-21 nuclear-armed bomber will go mostly to Northrop Grumman, as will $2.6 billion for a new ICBM, known formally as the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent. Lockheed Martin will be the main company to profit from the $1.6 billion allocated for the Trident sea-launched ballistic missile. An additional $609 million for a new air-launched, nuclear-armed cruise missile — known officially as the Long-Range Standoff weapon or LRSO — will help fill the coffers of Raytheon Technologies.

Other top recipients of nuclear weapons-related funding are the firms and universities that run the eight major facilities of the NNSA’s nuclear warhead complex. One of the contractors, Honeywell, runs the Kansas City National Security Campus and is a key part of the consortia that run the Nevada National Security site and Sandia National Laboratories. Another firm, Bechtel, plays a role in running the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the Y-12 National Security Complex, and the Pantex Plant. These firms and laboratories are responsible for creating the materials needed to fuel nuclear warheads, as well as assembling, testing, and conducting research and development on new ones.

One of the factors that makes these firms powerful, especially in the halls of Congress, is that they employ thousands of Americans in what many would call “middle class jobs.” No politician wants to take on a major defense contractor that provides employment for large numbers of their constituents, since doing so could put their chances for reelection at risk. In other words, when it comes down to it, the profiteers have a dual advantage. One is based on the perception that more weapons will somehow make us safer while the other is based on the potential for  economic growth — albeit slow, inconsistent, and often highly concentrated in specific areas — that inevitably occurs in the short-term when one of these large firms sets up shop in a mid-sized American town. The economic benefits of nuclear weapons spending come at the expense of other public investments that could create many more jobs per dollar spent, but until there is a coordinated federal effort to bring employment in infrastructure, green energy, or other well-paying industries to the areas that now depend on nuclear weapons production, the arms makers will continue to have a political advantage in the battles over how to spend our tax dollars.


Continued lobbying for the Pentagon and DOE’s nuclear modernization plan ignores the fact that building a new generation of nuclear weapons will make the world a more dangerous place and increase the risk of nuclear war while fueling the new arms race. This is particularly true with respect to ICBMs, which former Secretary of Defense William Perry has described as “some of the most dangerous weapons in the world” because the president would have only a matter of minutes to decide whether to launch them on warning of an attack, greatly increasing the risks of an accidental nuclear war based on a false alarm.

The organization Global Zero has outlined an alternative nuclear posture that would eliminate ICBMs, reduce the numbers of bombers and ballistic missile submarines, and implement a policy of No First Use (NFU) of nuclear weapons as part of a “deterrence-only” strategy that would reduce the danger of a nuclear conflict. The only way to be truly safe from nuclear weapons is to eliminate them altogether, as called for in the UN’s Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which went into effect in January 2021 and currently has 86 signatories and 54 states that have ratified the treaty. So far none of the nuclear weapons powers have signed onto the treaty, but pressing them to do so should be a central component of efforts to rein in nuclear dangers. The United States, Russia, and other nuclear weapons states are clinging to the purported strategic benefits of possessing nuclear weapons even as they embark on a new arms race that will make nuclear war more likely. The quest for military dominance, or even a nuclear “balance of terror,” is fraught with risks that are not worth taking if humanity is to survive and move beyond the nuclear age.

It’s long past time that we stopped letting special interest lobbying and corporate profits stand in the way of a more sensible nuclear policy, which includes reducing our nuclear arsenal and developing a No First Use policy. There’s too much at stake to let the companies and their allies in the US government conduct business as usual.

William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Program at the Center for International Policy.

William D. Hartung

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