Costs are skyrocketing to modernize the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Instead of turning a blind eye, Congress should demand fiscal oversight and make hard decisions balancing costs with deterrence

By Sharon K. Weiner, Scientific American

Bipartisanship seems rare in Congress these days. But one place to consistently find agreement between Democrats and Republicans is support for modernizing the U.S. nuclear arsenal—currently numbering almost 5,000 nuclear warheads, plus the triad of missiles, submarines and bombers to deliver them. Unfortunately, that consensus also seems to extend to turning a blind eye to the exploding costs, which helps explain why the original $1 trillion modernization program proposed in 2010 today has a price tag approaching $2 trillion. That estimate is likely to escalate even further by 2050—the supposed end date for modernization.

nuclear silo

Supporting nuclear modernization at any price is neither necessary nor affordable. Instead, Congress needs to improve, and be held accountable for, fiscal oversight of the nuclear arsenal.

Congress should first start by looking at the intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). In January of this year, the Air Force announced that the price tag for its new ICBM—the Sentinel—had increased by more than 37 percent. This triggered a review mandated by the Nunn-McCurdy Act—a 1982 law that sought to rein in the spiraling cost of military spending. Sentinel’s increased cost—from $96 billion to $130 billion over the next 10 years—is a “critical breach” of the act and should lead to termination of the program. To avoid this, the secretary of defense must explain the cause of the cost growth and restructure the program, which he is expected to do in coming months.

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