The U.S. nuclear arsenal, the most powerful but indiscriminate class of weapons ever created, is set to undergo the costliest overhaul in its history, even as the military faces spending cuts to its conventional arms programs at a time of fiscal crisis.
For two decades, U.S. administrations have confronted the decrepit, neglected state of the aging nuclear weapons complex. Yet officials have repeatedly put off sinking huge sums into projects that receive little public recognition, driving up the costs even further.
Now, as the nation struggles to emerge from the worst recession of the postwar era and Congress faces an end-of-year deadline to avoid $1.2 trillion in automatic cuts to the federal budget over 10 years, the Obama administration is overseeing the gargantuan task of modernizing the nuclear arsenal to keep it safe and reliable.
There is no official price tag for the effort to upgrade and maintain the 5,113 warheads in the inventory, to replace old delivery systems and to renovate the aging facilities where nuclear work is performed. A study this summer by the nonpartisan Stimson Center, a Washington think tank, estimated costs would be at least $352 billion over the coming decade to operate and modernize the current arsenal. Others say the figure could be far higher, particularly if the work is delayed even longer.