America’s nuclear weapons could not prevent the 9/11 terrorist attacks or restrain insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some say this shows that nuclear deterrence does not work, or at the very least is irrelevant to contemporary security challenges. This is dubious logic since of course the fact that nuclear weapons do not serve every national security purpose does not mean they are not critically important for the roles they do play, like helping to prevent nuclear attacks and discourage large-scale wars. Nevertheless, such arguments may have contributed to decades of modernization postponements and general neglect that, as both the Trump and Obama Administrations have warned, leave the United States with nuclear forces that will “age into obsolescence” unless they are replaced within the next generation.
With the federal budget season underway, it is a good time to remember that nuclear weapons cannot solve all of America’s problems. Just as they are not well suited to preventing terrorist attacks, nuclear weapons cannot solve major DoD or national budget challenges. This is because even drastic cuts to U.S. nuclear deterrence capabilities, which might have significant negative repercussions for American security, would likely reduce long-term defense spending by less than 1%.
In recent years, many who oppose nuclear weapons on various grounds have taken to arguing that modernization programs are unaffordable in light of overall defense spending and national debt and that America cannot afford to pay for both nuclear and conventional military modernization. They point to a 2017 report by the Congressional Budget Office, or CBO, and similar analyses suggesting that over the next 30 years it will cost the United States about a trillion dollars to maintain its nuclear deterrent and replace Cold War-era systems as they reach the end of their service lives.
Proponents of the current U.S. nuclear modernization plan—which the Obama Administration put in place and the Trump Administration has left largely unchanged—point out that total spending on nuclear weapons is projected to rise from only about 3% of overall DoD spending today to about 6% in the late 2020s, and then remain at that level for about a decade.