U.S. Has Spent $5.8 Trillion on Nuclear Arms Since 1940, Study Says

By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 1, 1998; Page A02

Since 1940, the United States has spent $5.8 trillion on nuclear weapons programs, more than on any single program except Social Security, according to a study billed as the first comprehensive audit of the country's effort to build a nuclear arsenal.

The study, released yesterday by the Brookings Institution, ranked the expenditures leading to the production of nuclear explosives third over the last 5 1/2 decades, behind other defense spending ($13.2 trillion) and Social Security ($7.9 trillion). Nuclear weapons ranked just ahead of welfare payments ($5.3 trillion) and interest on the national debt ($4.7 trillion).

The audit, which calculated costs for nuclear research, development, deployment, command and control, defenses and dismantlement, was not undertaken to determine whether the U.S. nuclear force was worth the expenditure, said Stephen I. Schwartz, a guest scholar at Brookings and chairman of the four-year project. Rather it was designed to set the stage for "an honest and fully informed debate to begin."

However, the study suggests that the price tag of the nuclear program was allowed to escalate in part because the public and Congress were not aware of the overall costs. Schwartz wrote in the study that the "impetus to manufacture and deploy large numbers of nuclear weapons gathered strength because nuclear weapons were considered less expensive than conventional forces." Had the true costs been known, which would have disproved that assumption, Schwartz continued, "there almost certainly would have been a debate about the wisdom" of the continued buildup of nuclear weapons.

Paul Warnke, head of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency in the Carter administration, who was aware of the Brookings study, disagreed. "I don't think it would have made that much difference if the American people knew the cost of nuclear weapons," he said. "The people were scared of the Russian threat and would have spent whatever it took. . . . They thought they were buying an insurance policy and didn't care about the premium."

Still, the Brookings study indicates the degree to which the nuclear buildup outran public understanding. It shows that when Defense Secretary Robert McNamara declared in 1964 that a total nuclear force equivalent to 400 megatons (equal to 400 million tons of TNT) would have been enough for mutually assured destruction with the Soviet Union, the U.S. stockpile already totaled 17,000 megatons.

One of the study's initial findings was that only 7 percent of the total cost for the weapons went for development and manufacture of the actual warheads. Deployment of weapons systems, such as bombers and missiles, and the infrastructure to facilitate their use made up 86 percent of the expenses, while much of the rest went for cleanup.

"In the end," Schwartz said, "cleanup costs may be as much as the weapons cost in the first place."

Richard Haass, head of the Brookings national security program, said the study had implications for India and Pakistan as those two countries pursue their nuclear programs. The hidden costs brought together in the audit show those two countries that they "cannot have a fully developed program on the cheap," Haass said.

John Pike, director of the Space Policy Project of the Federation of American Scientists and a co-author of the study, said that if the Indian and Pakistani governments emulate the Chinese in having a deterrent nuclear strategy, their overall costs would be equivalently much less than those of the United States, which sought not just to deter an attack, but to maintain the ability to retaliate after a massive strike.

The study fuels criticism of a lack of accountability over the years both within successive administrations and on Capitol Hill for spending on nuclear weapons programs.

"While the costs of individual programs were debated from time to time, the near total absence of data documenting either annual or cumulative costs of the overall effort made effective democratic debate and oversight all but impossible," according to Michael Armacost, president of Brookings and a former undersecretary of state.

The study notes that spending on the current nuclear arsenal has stood at about $35 billion annually, or roughly 15 percent of the total defense budget. Although new weapons are no longer being produced, the stockpile has the equivalent explosive force of about 120,000 Hiroshima bombs, according to Schwartz. He noted that the $4.5 billion spent annually to keep the nuclear stockpile reliable is an amount similar to the expense in years when weapons were still being produced.

An Arsenal's Allowance

The United States has spent more on nuclear weapons since 1940 than on all other categories besides Social Security and nonnuclear defense, according to a Brookings Institution report.

Total cost since 1940 in trillions of dollars* (adjusted for inflation)

Nuclear weapons and infrastructure -- $5.8 trillion

SOURCE: Brookings Institution

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