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In the Middle of the Pandemic, Nuclear-Weapons Spending Shot Up, a New Report Says


An unarmed Trident II missile launching from the USS Maine submarine near San Diego, Calif., Feb. 12, 2020. The United States spent $37.4 billion on nuclear weapons in 2020, a rise over 2019, as the pandemic raged across the world. Altogether, the globe’s nine nuclear-armed countries spent $72.6 billion last year on weapons, yet the US and Russia say they will begin talks on better controlling such armaments. US NAVY 

In 2020, during one of the worst global pandemics in recent history, killing more than three million people that year from the Covid-19 virus, nine nuclear-armed countries spent $72.6 billion on bolstering and modernizing their arsenals, at a rate of more than $137,000 a minute.

That is a $1.4 billion increase over 2019, according to a new report published by the Geneva-based International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (Ican), a nongovernmental group focused on eliminating nuclear weapons globally. Ican was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2017 for achieving the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, known as the TPNW.

Despite most of the world’s countries supporting a nuclear-weapons ban, nuclear-armed countries upped their weapons spending in 2020. Most notably, the United States, under the Trump administration, spent $37.4 billion, followed by China, which spent $10.1 billion. Other countries’ spending included Russia, Britain, France, India, Israel, Pakistan and North Korea, in order of amount. (Britain, China, France, Russia and the US are permanent members of the United Nations Security Council.)

The report on the spending rise during the pandemic arrives as Russia and the US say they want to better control nuclear arms. This message was reconveyed at the Geneva meeting of President Joe Biden and President Vladimir Putin last week, after they agreed in February to start working on a replacement for the New Start treaty, which expires in 2026. Biden has nominated Bonnie Jenkins as the US under secretary of state for arms control and international security affairs.

“The global increase in spending on nuclear weapons is troubling at a time when countries should be reducing their nuclear arsenals, not expanding or upgrading them,” William Hartung, director of the Arms and Security Program at the Center for International Policy, told PassBlue. The Washington center focuses on research, public education and advocacy on US foreign policy.

“The increase between 2019 and 2020 represents continuing rearmament and modernization plans on the part of the major nuclear weapons states — especially the United States, which is just at the beginning of a three decades long plan to spend $1.7 trillion on a new generation of nuclear armed submarines, bombers, and missiles, with new warheads to go with them,” Hartung added.

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Additionally, although the world’s nine nuclear-armed countries have decreased the size of their arsenals, they have increased the number of weapons on high operational alert, according to another new report, from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (Sipri). As a result, the world is more within striking distance of nuclear weapons. The most vulnerable region is Asia, home to these nuclear powers: India, Pakistan, China and North Korea.

China may have been a distant second in the amount of spending in 2020 on nuclear weapons, but it is less transparent with such expenses. To estimate nuclear spending for China, Ican estimated that the country spends four percent of its total military costs on nuclear weapons, based on similar estimates from the past. Other countries, like France, published a defense bill allocating €4.7 billion (about $5.7 billion), for nuclear deterrence in 2020, a rise over 2019.

Notably, the US and some other nuclear-weapons countries set their defense budgets before the pandemic. The National Defense Authorization Act for 2020, for example, was adopted in December 2019.

“One of the many hard truths the Covid-19 pandemic has shown is that investment in weapons and militaries will not protect us from security threats people around the world are facing in the 21st century, including diseases, climate change and racism,” Alicia Sanders-Zakre, a co-author of the report and policy and research coordinator for Ican, told PassBlue.

While leaders of these countries are partly to blame for spending such huge amounts of money during a pandemic, corporations play a big role, too. More than 20 companies producing nuclear weapons profited from the business in 2020 through existing or new contracts; $27.7 billion went to 11 companies for new or modified nuclear-weapons-related contracts.

Think-tank funding and lobbying are two reasons for weapons manufacturers’ profits in 2020, the report said. These manufacturers financed upward of $10 million collectively in one year to most major think tanks writing or researching nuclear weapons, some of which then published reports recommending that countries build new nuclear weapon systems.

For example, the Atlantic Council, a Washington organization that received approximately $1.7 million in 2019, published a policy brief recommending that the US develop new nuclear abilities to deter Russia. The Council’s 2020 annual report, from fiscal year 2019, said that the organization received direct funding from nine companies producing nuclear weapons.

Many think tanks also have current or former chief executives from companies that benefited from nuclear spending on their advisory boards or boards of directors. Think tanks that received the most money from weapons makers include the Atlantic Council, Brookings Institution, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Center for New American Security, the report said. All these organizations are based in the US. (Bonnie Jenkins, the Biden nominee, is on leave from Brookings.)

In addition, the chief executives of three companies that produce nuclear weapons sit on the advisory board of the Atlantic Council: Guillaume Faury of Airbus, a European company; Gregory Hayes of Raytheon Technologies, based in Waltham, Mass.; and Marillyn Hewson of Maryland-based Lockheed Martin (until June 2020).

The top companies profiting from nuclear-weapons contracts in 2020 were Northrop Grumman (based in Virginia, $13.6 billion), General Dynamics (Virginia, $10.8 billion) and Lockheed Martin ($2 billion).

Northrop Grumman is headed by Kathy Warden; Phebe Novakovic is the head of General Dynamics; Lockheed Martin is now led by James Taiclet. Yet only three of the more than 20 nuclear-weapon companies listed in the report are led by women.

For every $1 spent lobbying by the weapons manufacturers and others, an average $236 came back to companies in contracts. Contractors even lobbied to authorize funding for defense in Covid-19 relief bills: much of Boeing’s defense lobbying was bundled with lobbying around the Cares Act (the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act) in the US.

The cycle of nuclear funding follows a slippery slope: US tax money pays for companies to build nuclear weapons; companies hire lobbyists to argue that nuclear weapons are necessary and finance think tanks; lobbyists encourage politicians to spend more tax money on nuclear weapons.

Boeing, which spent $12.4 million lobbying on defense issues in the US (including for a defense budget through the Cares Act) in 2020, received $59 million for a government contract to work on nuclear missiles.

“Through their extensive lobbying, nuclear-weapons makers have undue influence in sustaining political support for these weapons of mass destruction,” the report says. In 2020, Trump’s $740.5 billion military budget was the largest for the US since World War II.

Companies like Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, however, are being challenged by their shareholders because of their seeming technical violation of international law on nuclear weapons, the report says. In 2020, the first treaty banning nuclear weapons, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, was adopted in 2017 by 122 nations and entered into force in early 2021.

Seven Catholic activists, known as the Kings Bay Plowshares, held a protest “action” at the Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base in St. Mary’s, Ga., in 2018. They were arrested for breaking federal laws, found guilty and have served their prison sentences or are still in prison or halfway houses. 

No NATO member has joined it, and it was controversial from the start, as parties to the 1970 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), whose goal is disarmament by nuclear-weapon countries, refused to take part in the TPNW’s negotiations. In the last three decades, the NPT has started to show its limits, analysts say, with India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea having built nuclear weapons, and the latter threatening to unleash them regionally and toward the US.

“Countries that are not party to the treaty that are engaging in banned activities are just acting contrary to that treaty that they are not legally bound to comply with,” Sanders-Zakre told PassBlue.

Yet to call these “banned activities,” or violations of international law, may be misleading. The prohibitions in the treaty’s Article I “have nothing to do with spending on nuclear weapons, nor do any other provisions contained in the TPNW,” Angela Kane, a former UN high representative for disarmament affairs, told PassBlue in an email from Vienna. “And additionally, all TPNW articles only apply to States Parties — which the nine nuclear-weapon possessors we know definitely are not.”

The treaty prohibits nations from developing, testing, producing, manufacturing, transferring, possessing, stockpiling, using or threatening to use nuclear weapons or allowing nuclear weapons to be stationed on their territory. The Ican report said there has been increased backing for the accord among voters and lawmakers in NATO’s 30 countries, as reflected in public opinion polls, parliamentary resolutions, political party declarations and statements from past leaders.

“Nuclear weapons states continue to cling to dangerous Cold War strategies of nuclear warfighting and deterrence that increase the risk of nuclear conflict rather than limiting or preventing it,” Hartung told PassBlue. He also noted that global nuclear weapons buildup covers all major systems — nuclear-armed bombers, ballistic missile submarines, intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), cruise missiles and nuclear warheads.

The treaty’s preamble acknowledges the harm suffered as a result of nuclear weapons, including the disproportionate impact on women and girls. In a separate report, Ican revealed that women in Hiroshima and Nagasaki had nearly double the risk of developing and dying from cancer due to ionizing radiation exposure; girls in Chernobyl are considerably more likely than boys to develop thyroid cancer from nuclear fallout; and pregnant women exposed to nuclear radiation are more likely to deliver children with physical malformations and stillbirths, leading to increased maternal mortality.

Yet the harm of radiation on women is underestimated and under-reported, a UN report said in 2016. Moreover, at international meetings on nuclear weapons, only a quarter of delegates are likely to be women, and less than a fifth of statements are likely to be delivered by a woman. Almost half of all country delegations at these meetings are likely to be composed entirely of men.


Ivana Ramirez is from South Carolina. She will begin matriculating as an undergraduate student at Yale University in 2021. She writes PassBlue’s This Week @UN news summary and is the researcher for PassBlue’s UN-Scripted podcast series.

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In the Middle of the Pandemic, Nuclear-Weapons Spending Shot Up, a New Report Says
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Stephen Dear
2 years ago

Thanks for this story and for the photo of the Kings Bay Plowshares. The photo caption is a bit outdated. The seven activists have either already served their prison sentences or are in prison or halfway houses. Follow them on Twitter and Facebook.

2 years ago
Reply to  Stephen Dear

Thanks very much. We’ve updated the caption. Having spent at least an hour on the KBPlowshares website and on its Facebook page, it was difficult to find this information when the caption was originally written. — Editors

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