The Congressional Budget Office was created in 1974 to help Congress better understand the government’s finances. In one report now done every two years, CBO examines nuclear deterrent spending.
In its latest review, CBO admits the U.S. has “not built any new nuclear weapons or delivery systems” for nearly four decades, yet questions whether the country should support the administration’s 2018 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) and by implication the 2018 bipartisan congressionally mandated National Security Strategy Commission (NSSC).
Both the NPR and NSSC warn of the growing nuclear threats from Russia and China and call for a serious nuclear modernization effort backed by additional nuclear investments.
But despite these twin calls for more nuclear spending, CBO uses creative accounting tricks to make it appear nuclear spending is already markedly increasing.
For example, CBO in its 2017 report added in 100 percent of all the conventional bomber costs to the nuclear accounts, increasing four-fold their previous estimates and adding an astounding $200 billion to their estimate of the 30-year costs of nuclear “modernization.”
This was done despite official OSD testimony to Congress that the nuclear costs of our dual use conventional bombers were no more than 3 percent of the bomber spending accounts.
CBO also in 2017 assessed all nuclear programs over 30 years, not the usual 10-year budget window. This magically lifted “supposed” nuclear spending to over $1 trillion, a figure latched onto by the disarmament community to subsequently “prove” nuclear spending was out of control.
This year CBO keeps the 100 percent cost estimate for the B2 and 25 percent for the B-52 and the new B-21 bombers, respectively, still artificially adding $45 billion to the nuclear spending accounts.
Second, CBO arbitrarily adds an “extra” 3 percent a year to nuclear costs, and over 10 years effectively adds at least $62 billion to the “nuclear budget.”
Third, CBO adds $9 billion costs of a possible Navy based cruise missile and its warhead that might be part of the USA regional extended nuclear deterrent, but which is not in the administration’s defense budget.
Fourth, the CBO includes two additional out-years in their ten-year window that reflect the peak of modernization and drop-out two years we have already completed. This alone “adds” $51 billion to the program over the new ten-year window but as CBO admits “does not signal an increase in programs’ total lifetime costs”.
If the cruise missile costs of $9 billion over the next 10 years, the $62 billion in artificial program cost growth, and the excess bomber costs of $45 billion are cut from CBO’s estimates, average real annual nuclear sustainment and modernization costs drop from $50 billion to $38 billion annually, not significantly above the current annual costs of the entire nuclear enterprise of $33 billion.
But CBO’s sleight of hand does not end here. Although the land-based ICBM program (known as GBSD), is executing under budget and ahead of schedule, CBO uses an old inflated total cost of over $100 billion for the program, including $61 billion for the next ten years, which is at least in my estimate some $20 billion too high.
A final critical flaw in the CBO assessment is their artful conjoining of the costs of new weapons — modernization — with the costs of sustaining the legacy systems last modernized during the Reagan administration.
This has important implications.
First, sustaining our relatively old systems constitutes nearly two-thirds the cost of what is often incorrectly described as “modernization,” but which is largely sustainment and some modest modernization.
Second, admitting this cost distinction upfront would take away the headline that America’s nuclear programs are leading some kind of new arms race. The accurate narrative would be that the United States hasn’t modernized its nuclear deterrent in nearly 40 years, and that old legacy system costs are increasing.
Third, if unilateral cuts to legacy programs are made, that would immediately take down whole parts of our nuclear forces. No president (Democrat or Republican) during the 47 years of the nuclear arms control age have ever made unilateral cuts in our deployed strategic deterrent not specifically required by arms agreements the U.S. signed, and Congress consented.
What’s the upshot of all this? CBO’s creative accounting is based upon artificially assumptions, and it provides a fictional set of budget numbers that do not reflect our nuclear capabilities. Such estimates are no way to make key national security decisions. Unless corrected, that could seriously undermine America’s defensive posture, and weaken our position against nuclear-armed adversaries such as Russia and China.
Peter Huessy is the director for strategic deterrent studies at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.