Approaches for Managing the Costs of U.S. Nuclear Forces, 2017 to 2046

This report from the Congressional Budget Office contains lots of facts and figures on nuclear weapons, along with some underwhelming proposal for reducing their costs a little bit. But no proposals for limiting them or even scaling them back by much.

What strikes me right away is not how expensive they are, but how cost-effective they actually are. That is, no country could ever afford to match the firepower and deterrent effect of nuclear weapons with conventional weapons. That is one thing that makes them so diabolically hard to get rid of.

The other thing that struck me is how easy they actually are to get rid of. Keeping them in good working order takes a ton of maintenance effort and constant upgrades. It is not just the nuclear material or even the nuclear weapon that has to be upgraded, but the aircraft carriers, submarines, bombers, missile silos, and all the associated hardware, software, and personnel required to keep all of these components running. Just stop investing and pretty soon, you will not have a functional nuclear arsenal. Of course, having a nuclear arsenal in a state of disrepair is probably not a particularly safe thing. To unwind a nuclear program, you would have to have an organized program of decommissioning and destroying the things as they become functionally obsolete. Maybe nobody has given much thought to how to actually do that, so maybe we are locked into maintaining the arsenal because no alternative has been seriously considered.

The report does go into nuclear strategy a little bit. One thing I had never thought about is that if you go for a strategy of “minimum deterrence”, which means just the bare minimum number of weapons needed for a credible threat of retaliation, it might lock you into a strategy of targeting civilians. In other words, you want your opponent to believe you would lob your limited number of weapons at their cities rather than military targets. I’m not sure I quite get that – I suppose the idea is that with more weapons you could retaliate against military targets first, see how that goes, and still have the option of taking out cities as a last resort, really just out of spite. It’s also possible that with a smaller arsenal, a weak leader could be more tempted to launch a preemptive strike. I have a hard time seeing the morality of any of these scenarios.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *