We’ve told this story dozens of times before: as experts and the public urge the government to reign in nuclear weapons spending, the cost of nuclear weapons projects skyrockets by hundreds of millions—or billions—of dollars.
As the Washington Post editorial board wrote this weekend, it’s the same old story with the government’s planned refurbishment of the B-61 gravity bomb. The “life extension program” of this nuclear weapon was estimated to cost $4 billion a couple of years ago. Now the price is a staggering $10 billion, the Post reported.
The Project On Government Oversight sent a letter to the Department of Defense in February questioning why U.S. taxpayers are spending billions of dollars to refurbish the 200 or so B-61 bombs that the United States deploys in Europe as part of NATO’s nuclear deterrent. As the Post noted, the justification for this deterrent is shrinking:
These forward-based tactical nuclear bombs were intended to deter a Soviet land invasion of Europe. That threat has gone, and so has the military mission for the bombs. If a nuclear deterrent is needed on the continent, the United States has other options. The sole remaining value of stationing the gravity bombs in Europe is political, to demonstrate that non-nuclear members are sharing in the alliance defense burden. Even that is being debated within the alliance.
Under the New START agreement, the United States and Russia are currently reducing their arsenals of deployed nuclear weapons. And the tactical B-61 bombs and Russia’s tactical weapons could be next on the chopping block, as the Post points out. It questions:
Who will be deterred by the refurbished B-61? Is the symbolism of deploying the nuclear gravity bomb in Europe worth the billions of dollars? Does it make sense to embark on a $10 billion program to refurbish a weapon that could be put on the table in negotiations with Russia a few years from now?
Simply put, the B-61 refurbishment could end up being a colossal waste of money, and it shouldn’t fall squarely on the shoulders of U.S. taxpayers—as we argued in our “Spending Even Less, Spending Even Smarter” recommendations to Congress, if B-61 refurbishment happens at all, it should be a shared NATO responsibility. Now more than ever, these “exploding costs” are not something the United States can afford.
Mia Steinle is an investigator with the Project On Government Oversight. Image of production technicians with B61 thermonuclear gravity bombs by Flickr user NNSA News.