CBO: Letting nuclear treaty expire could cost billions
Allowing the last treaty constraining the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals to expire could cost hundreds of billions of dollars, depending on how the United States responds, according to a new analysis from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO).
Tuesday’s report from the CBO looked at several possibilities for the future of the U.S. nuclear arsenal should the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) be allowed to lapse when it expires in February.
Costs for the potential responses ranged from no additional funding beyond what the United States already plans to spend on its nuclear modernization on the low end to up to $439 billion in one-time acquisition costs and $28 billion in annual operating costs on the high end.
“How and when the United States or Russia would respond to the expiration of New START is unclear,” CBO said in the report. “To help policymakers understand the budgetary implications of one potential course of action the United States could take, the Congressional Budget Office was asked to examine the potential costs that the Department of Defense (DoD) might incur if the United States chose to increase its strategic nuclear forces to levels that are roughly consistent with the limits under three earlier arms control treaties.”
New START caps the number of deployed nuclear warheads the United States and Russia can have at 1,550 apiece, places limits on deploying weapons that can deliver the warheads and creates a verification regime.
The agreement, which was negotiated by the Obama administration, is set to expire Feb. 5. But the treaty includes an option to extend it for another five years without needing the approval of either country’s legislature.
The Trump administration has said it wants to replace New START with an agreement that also includes China and covers new weapons. The administration started talks with Russia earlier this summer, but China has repeatedly rejected joining them.
Arms control advocates fear President Trump will allow New START to lapse, leaving Washington and Moscow without legal limits on their nuclear arsenals for the first time in decades.
“The new report published today by the Congressional Budget Office further strengthens the strong case for extending New START,” Kingston Reif, director for disarmament and threat reduction policy at the Arms Control Association, said in an email Tuesday. “The report shows that the already excessive and unsustainable financial costs to maintain and modernize the U.S. nuclear arsenal could soar even higher if the treaty expires in five months with nothing to replace it and the United States choses to increase the size of the arsenal.”
In July, a Government Accountability Office report said the Pentagon is basing its plans for force structure on the assumption that New START will be extended and so has no plans to increase its stockpile.
Tuesday’s CBO report, done at the request of House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) and Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), looked at scenarios should the United States decide to increase the size of its arsenal to levels allowed under three previous treaties.
The report looked at potential costs to the Pentagon, not the Department of Energy, which could also incur costs if the United States produces more nuclear warheads.
If the United States goes up to the limits of the 2002 Moscow Treaty, which allowed 1,700 to 2,200 warheads, there would be no additional cost compared to current modernization plans, according to the CBO.
Meanwhile, for limits under the 1993 START II and 1991 START I treaties, the CBO looked at two possible paths: increasing the number of warheads on each missile or increasing the number of weapons to deliver the warheads.
START II allowed 3,000 to 3,300 warheads. Increasing the number of warheads on each missile to that limit would have a one-time cost of $100 million, according to the CBO.
Increasing the number of delivery vehicles would have a one-time acquisition cost of $114 billion to $172 billion and increase annual operating costs by $3 billion to $8 billion, the CBO said.
START I allowed 6,000 warheads. Increasing the number of warheads on each missile to that level would have a one-time acquisition cost of $88 billion to $149 billion, as well as an increase of $4 billion to $10 billion in annual operating costs, according to the report.
Increasing the number of weapons to deliver warheads at START I levels would have one-time acquisitions costs of $410 billion to $439 billion and annual operating costs of $24 billion to $28 billion, according to the analysis.