Replacing Nuclear Weapons

30 April 2013, 2135 EDT

B2This is a guest post by Jarrod Hayes. He is Assistant Professor in the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs. He received his PhD in Politics and International Relations from the University of Southern California in 2009. His research broadly focuses on the social construction of foreign and security policy. 

They are complex weapons.  They are expensive.  They require high levels of engineering expertise to develop, maintain and operate.  They are the purview of the most advanced developed economies in the world.  Nuclear weapons?  Nope, modern major conventional weapons systems.

The title of this post exaggerates of course, but I think there might be something to it.  My thinking on this subject is prompted by a recent story on quiet pressure being applied by policymakers the United States to their colleagues in the United Kingdom.  The Americans want the Brits to scrap their submarine deployed nuclear weapons in favor, one assumes, of more conventional military capabilities.

The crux of the issue is the assessment by the US that the UK cannot afford to have conventional capabilities sufficient to allow the UK to be a full military partner and submarine-deployed nuclear weapons.  The US assessment suggests that the established nuclear powers in the West will face increasingly difficult questions about arsenals that serve no practical military purpose.  In part, this is due to an emerging era of global economic rebalancing.  But in part, the difficult decisions are prompted by the enormous expense of modern major conventional weapons systems.  As modern information and materials technology has advanced, so too has the cost of the systems that draw upon those technologies.

Compare, for example, the inflation adjusted costs of the B-52 and B-2.  In 2012 dollars, the flyaway cost of the B-52A was about $240 million ($28 million in 1955 dollars).  The B-2 weighs in at $1.047 billion per plane flyaway cost (about $737 million in 1997 dollars).  Two platforms destined to do basically the same thing (strategic bombing) increased in cost more than four-fold.

My guess is that the same thing happened across the board.  The US assessment combined with the rising cost and sophistication of modern weapons systems implies that nuclear weapons are no longer the hallmark of a great power, but instead the ability to field very expensive major conventional weapons systems that can be used in combat.  But perhaps the really interesting part of the story is the potential for denuclearization through budgetary constraint and rising conventional costs.  Who would have thought that the future of nukes might be challenged not by moral arguments, but rather financial and practical ones?