Are Nuclear Weapons Really the Ultimate in More Bang for the Buck?

“Saudi Arabia’s decision last week to sign a nuclear cooperation pact with France marks a major step forward for a pan-Arab drive toward nuclear power,” reports UPI. “All told, 13 Middle Eastern states, including Egypt, have announced plans — or dusted off old plans — to build nuclear power stations since 2006. All say they have no intention of seeking to develop nuclear weapons. But there is concern that once they’ve mastered the technology they’ll seek to counter Iran’s alleged push to acquire such weapons by doing so themselves.”

How is it that when a state ponders going nuclear, it always seems to find the money? It’s true that it takes advantage of a tendency on the part of its citizens to: 1. agree that no expense be spared when it comes to defense and 2. take national pride in a nuclear energy program (even more so in a nuclear weapons program). Or is that embarking on nuclear weapons program isn’t as expensive as one would think?

Conventional thinking holds that nuclear weapons are cheaper than non-nuclear weapons. In other words, they ostensibly represent a means for a state with limited conventional forces to level the playing field with states that boast larger conventional forces or even nuclear weapons. The editor of the Nonproliferation Review and perhaps the world’s leading nuclear weapons auditor Stephen Schwartz wrote at Nuclear Threat Initiative:

The belief underpinning the rapid increase in nuclear weapons during the 1950s was summed up in the phrase, “a bigger bang for a buck.” According to this widely accepted idea, nuclear weapons were more cost effective than conventional ones because pound for pound they could deliver more “killing power.” The thinking was that nuclear weapons would replace conventional weapons, saving large amounts of money and deterring war. But in reality nuclear weapons supplemented conventional weapons and the United States developed enormous arsenals of both, wiping out any potential savings envisioned by those who championed a large and robust nuclear arsenal.

Obviously, a nuclear weapons program won’t cost a state as much as the Manhattan Project, with its pioneering research and design — $28 billion (in today’s dollars) or $7 billion apiece for the two bombs. That wheel doesn’t need reinventing (unfortunately). But, the issue of states supplementing their conventional weapons instead of replacing them aside, how are nuclear weapons cheaper?

In the summer of 2001, Nonproliferation Review published an article by Dr. Stanley Erickson, a scientist who today works in the private sector developing port inspection systems for the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office. His piece, titled Economic and Technological Trends Affecting Nuclear Nonproliferation, shows how states might afford — or, more to the point, convince themselves they can afford — such an undertaking.

Continued worldwide economic growth [at that time, just before 9/11] has raised the GNP of many states [some of which] may indeed be crossing the threshold where economic strength would allow the development of a nuclear weapon program without crippling their economy or conventional military forces, even if done rapidly.

Dr. Erickson adds that “new technologies have been developed to produce nuclear materials [which] may be done with much less capital expenditure.” These include laser processes for isotopic separation. But, “There is little point for a state to develop nuclear weapons if delivery systems for these weapons are beyond the state’s capabilities. The preferred method for nuclear weapon delivery among the major powers has been ballistic missiles. … However, cruise missiles may be a more achievable delivery system for many countries.”

Cruise missiles — talk about your budget delivery systems. Then there are submarines. Wait, a nuclear submarine costs $2 billion plus. But Dr. Erickson is referring to “conventionally powered submarines . . . with electric generators [from which] a short-range cruise missile [can be launched] from torpedo tubes while the submarine is submersed.”

Along with laser isotope separation and launching cruise missiles from the torpedo tubes of electric submarines, there’s yet another avenue the aspiring, but cost-conscious nuclear power can pursue. What’s an illicit nuclear program without underground research and manufacturing facilities? Huh? How can that not be expensive? Turns out that while it’s not necessarily cheap, it’s less costly than you might think.

Modern self-propelled tunneling machinery allows nuclear facilities to be built many times faster and cheaper than they were 20 years ago. Automated tunneling equipment . . . continues to become more efficient and less expensive [allowing] a tunnel two to 10 meters (m) in diameter to be bored at the rate of several m per day or more. … Other types of automated equipment allow supports and linings to be put in place at the same rate as the boring proceeds. [Tunnel boring machines] have lowered the cost and delay barriers that might have formerly inhibited the placing of facilities underground.

One more option remains available to a state developing a nuclear weapons program on the cheap: skip developing a delivery system, such as missiles, in favor of prepositioning. What does prepositioning involve? Nuclear weapons smuggled, instead of launched or dropped from bombers, into another state such as the United States. Of course, you know that as nuclear terrorism. But what’s to stop a state, instead of a non-state actor (terrorist group), from attempting to plan such an attack? Conveniently Dr. Erickson is one of the few to publicly address that subject, which we’ll address in a future post.

Meanwhile, though, a state aspiring to nuclear weapons would still be required to develop a delivery systems lest the International Atomic Energy Agency and the rest of the world draw the conclusion that it planned to either emulate nuclear terrorists, or equally troublesome, supply them with SADMs (special atomic demolition munitions), such as low-yield nuclear suitcases or backpacks. Thus, no totally scrimping on a delivery system.