Clearly, maintaining a nuclear arsenal can be a costly proposition. The area dedicated to nuclear weapons storage and the maintenance cost of keeping it operational and secure is probably non-trivial.

While the costs in absolute dollar amounts are not very meaningful, a comparison can probably be made between maintaining, let's say, 100 nuclear-tipped missiles vs 100 modern fighter jets with fully-trained staff (including fully-trained pilots); or vs 1000 tank units or so; or vs maintaining 1 carrier.

In other words, do there exist rough estimates on how maintaining a larger nuclear arsenal creates an opportunity cost for armed forces with a fixed budget.

Are any such estimate public? I don't mean the exact numbers. Even the estimates (to within 1 order of magnitude) would be meaningful, at least for the purpose of public debate.

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    Re ... a compassion can probably be made between maintaining ... I suspect DYAC was in play here and that you meant comparison rather than compassion. Apr 4, 2022 at 12:30
  • @DavidHammen yep! Ty!
    – wrod
    Apr 4, 2022 at 13:35
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    I think this is an apples to oranges comparison. While roughly in the same field, nuclear and conventional forces do not have the same uses. Nuclear weapons would be more decisive in an all out war than conventions forces, but you cannot use nuclear weapons as freely as you can use conventional weapons. So you are getting some numbers, but I do not believe those numbers are going to be useful to establish any kind of general rule.
    – SJuan76
    Apr 4, 2022 at 17:51
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    @SJuan76 why do you think I am not aware of that? In fact, that's what motivates the question. In order to compare their marginal utility in any situation though, it's important to compare utility value of things of equal cost.
    – wrod
    Apr 4, 2022 at 17:56
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    re This question does not appear to be about governments, policies and political processes within the scope defined in the help center. votes to close, it would seem to me that defense budget decisions are eminently political in nature. Apr 4, 2022 at 22:15

2 Answers 2


Conveniently, this is part answered by CBO in Projected Costs of U.S. Nuclear Forces, 2021 to 2030:

If carried out, the plans for nuclear forces delineated in the Department of Defense’s (DoD’s) and the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) fiscal year 2021 budget requests, submitted in February 2020, would cost a total of $634 billion over the 2021–2030 period, for an average of just over $60 billion a year, CBO estimates.

This compares to 700B$ year total budget for DoD.

It doesn't seem that nukes are a very high cost item, once you have initially built up the military industrial complex to support them. They also may not need as much training to operate at a sufficient efficiency level.

Unlike say a jet fighter where a pilot who doesn't fly frequently, typically at a cost of $15-35k an hour, is just not a very useful jet fighter.

And a lot of the US nuclear arsenal is pretty old, yet still perfectly functional. That's probably due to the limited scope for defensive measures: an ICBM/SLBM will get through. If an arms race redevelops, with regards to defensive systems, expect renewed spending on delivery systems that evade countermeasures.

Although that same CBO report did warn that US delivery systems are just getting too old in absolute terms, which is apparently what is driving some of those costs in the coming years:

The nation’s current nuclear forces are reaching the end of their service life, and some delivery systems may not be capable of having their service lives extended further. U.S. nuclear forces consist of submarines that launch ballistic missiles (SSBNs), land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), long-range bomber aircraft, shorter-range tactical aircraft carrying bombs, and the nuclear warheads that those delivery systems carry. Over the next two decades, essentially all those systems will have to be refurbished or replaced with new systems if the United States is to continue fielding those capabilities.

I am also going to add the UK's Trident replacement program since that is an upcoming consideration for the UK. To put that in context, the UK defense budget is in the £45B range.

UK MoD puts replacement only at 41B£. However, it's more expensive if costed over the whole lifetime.

The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament puts the overall cost over the 30 years at £205bn. Reuters, in an analysis last year that was disputed by the MoD, put the cost at £167bn.

Either way, £200B of nuclear over 30 years needs to be compared to £1350B in total defense spending over those 30 years.

Last, since the UK example is contrasting acquisition vs total lifetime costs, let's take a look at Canada's mooted F35s comparison of acquisition vs lifetime costs to see a conventional weapons case:

The government released the KPMG report on 12 December 2012, which projected a lifetime cost at C$45.8 billion over 42 years and showed that the estimated cost to both purchase and provide needed upgrades and infrastructure was included the government's $9 billion figure given previously, although it did not include operating costs.

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    For what it is worth, long range bomber aircraft are the cheapest to maintain as well. They don't need many hours of training. They aren't used operationally very often in anger. And, neither training nor operational use is as hard on the aircraft as fight jet and close air support aircraft operations both in training and in combat.
    – ohwilleke
    Apr 5, 2022 at 18:44
  • I don't have the source, but when I was trying to figure out why the Russian air force is so weak, I came across a bunch of articles which estimates the hourly cost of training fighter pilots. The cheapest I saw was Indian. There was an article claiming that an hour of flying their Russian fighter jets was ~$5k. These costs should not vary too much between countries because a large part of it is the cost of fuel (which is fungible). It takes 200hours-350hours per year to maintain fighter pilot skills current. So the yearly per-pilot training cost is $1(one)million-$12(twelve)million.
    – wrod
    Apr 5, 2022 at 22:24
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    This answer could be improved by citing just how many nuclear weapons the US and UK are supporting at those prices. Surely the marginal cost of storing one more bomb in an already built high security facility will be cheaper than the up front costs of such a facility plus the weapon itself, but I think scale is important here. Apr 9, 2022 at 0:26

Historically, this was the basis of the New Look policy in the United States. According to Western analysts, it is also the basis of Russian current strategy. I don't believe that numbers can be translated in any meaningful way. The first nuclear weapon, or the first jet fighter, will be much more expensive than the 100th, or the 1000th.

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    Well, we aren't discussing firsts. What about the marginal costs? That would be the last 1% of one type of force vs the last 1% of another type of force.
    – wrod
    Apr 4, 2022 at 4:58
  • @wrod, in that case, see the two links. But true costs of nuclear weapons will depend on the scope of the nuclear industry.
    – o.m.
    Apr 4, 2022 at 5:03
  • I looked through the US one. And I don't see how to tell from if cutting the warhead count by 1000, while adding a carrier group, would increase or decrease the overall maintenance cost.
    – wrod
    Apr 4, 2022 at 5:13
  • @wrod, it reports that the US came to the conclusion that tactical nukes would be cheaper. I cannot second-guess their budget estimates two or three generations later.
    – o.m.
    Apr 4, 2022 at 5:56
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    but cheaper than what? I wasn't asking about total force necessarily. The question is really "if we cut the warhead count by 100, how many planes can we have instead?" During a limited war, having extra 100 nukes simply doesn't change the war in any way because they won't be used. But having an extra 300 pilots, and planes for them operate, can be the difference between a difficult operation and a seamless one.
    – wrod
    Apr 4, 2022 at 6:02

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