“Not in Keeping with the Modern World”: Nuclear Weapons, Defense and Deficits

December 1, 2011

Debate has flared anew this week over whether and how military spending figures into deficit reduction, with House Majority Leader Eric Cantor working to renegotiate the terms of the Budget Control Act and delay reductions to the Pentagon’s budget.  House members are arguing over the inflated cost of our nuclear weapons complex, as the U.S. plans to replace the three delivery platforms for our nuclear arsenal, the cost of which has grown 25 percent over the past year. Experts in and out of government have called for reexamining the weapons’ deterrent value and ballooning costs – just one of many examples of why lawmakers from both sides of the aisle continue to support smart, strategic reductions in military spending.

The Pentagon has indicated that it is reexamining the size of our nuclear arsenal. “Our top priority is maintaining a nuclear deterrent, but the arsenal may not need to be as large as it is,” said Pentagon press secretary George Little. Walter Pincus writes for the Washington Post, “The Pentagon discussions are mainly about whether savings can be made in the $213 billion or more that the Defense and Energy departments require over the next 10 years to modernize the current triad of strategic intercontinental-ballistic-missile-launching submarines, land-based ICBMs and long-range bombers, and to upgrade the aging industrial complex that builds and maintains the nuclear warheads and bombs in the stockpile… The Pentagon review is looking at ‘strategic needs,’ which means threats that could or should be deterred by the U.S. nuclear forces. Based on that, it will study the existing U.S. nuclear ‘force structure,’ which means numbers and types of delivery systems and warheads. And, finally, it will look at U.S. ‘force posture,’ or how many U.S. warheads need to be deployed on sub- or land-based ICBMs or bombers, and whether they should be on alert or in reserve stockpiles. Cost estimates for replacing these three delivery systems have already grown 25 percent over the past year.” [George Little via AFP, 11/11/11. Walter Pincus, 11/14/11]

Nuclear facilities’ ballooning costs, lack of clarity, and questionable strategic value draw concern from both sides of the aisle. Yesterday, the Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler highlighted a numbers debate that has broken out: “The U.S. government has never officially disclosed the exact cost [of nuclear programs], and whether one should include environmental clean-up costs, missile defense and other programs related to nuclear weapons is a legitimate topic of debate.” It appears that those costs are not just undisclosed but unknown. Adam Weinstein reports in Mother Jones, “In just the past year, the Government Accountability Office has issued four reports criticizing [the National Nuclear Security Administration's] ability to keep control of its operations and costs. ‘NNSA cannot accurately identify the total costs to operate and maintain weapons facilities and infrastructure,’ one states… At a time when federal programs are being scrutinized for fat, the NNSA’s 2012 budget is increasing by 19 percent to $7.6 billion.” This is an issue that experts from both sides of the aisle have taken up. Kelley Beaucar Vlahos writes for the American Conservative, “Despite a deficit reduction plan to cut $1.2 trillion in federal spending over 10 years and ongoing negotiations by the so-called supercommittee to identify cuts of $1.5 trillion more, members of Congress are pushing an expanded plutonium storage and production assistance facility at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. Critics say the facility is unnecessary, poorly designed, and dangerous-there are fault lines throughout the Los Alamos property-and its cost has ballooned from $375 million in 2001 to an estimated $5.5 billion today.”

The weapons’ strategic value is also coming into question.  In Foreign Policy, David Hoffman asks, “What’s the value of a nuclear warhead today? … the deterrent value of the arsenals isn’t what it used to be. Both the U.S. and Russia face new threats — terrorism, proliferation, economic competition, pandemics — for which these long-range or strategic nuclear weapons are of little value.” Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) further notes, “The amount of money we’re spending on maintaining nuclear weapons, modernizing nuclear weapons, is not in keeping with the modern world,” Levin said. “It’s much more a Cold War remnant.” [Washington Post, 11/30/11. Mother Jones, 11/9/11. American Conservative, 11/29/11. David Hoffman, 11/29/11. Carl Levin via BusinessWeek, 11/16/11]

“Resources are always part of strategy, and you can’t figure out your strategy without knowing how much you spend and where.” Taxpayers for Common Sense explains, “No President or Congress has ever attempted to create a unified, comprehensive nuclear weapons budget, however. The closest we have is the annual budget for NNSA and what the Defense Department calls a ‘major force program,’ which neglects many overhead, support, and research costs plus all costs for tactical nuclear weapons. Whether or not you think we need nuclear weapons, you do need to know how much they cost.” [Taxpayers for Common Sense, 11/10/11]

Bipartisan support for reducing defense spending. As the New York Times reported after the failure of the supercommittee, conservative leaders of Congress support — or at least don’t oppose — reducing military spending as part of broader deficit reduction efforts. “‘The House will forge ahead with the commitments we have made to reducing government spending,’ said the House speaker, John A. Boehner, who earlier this month said he was ‘morally bound’ to honor the statute and who has previously indicated a willingness to entertain Pentagon cuts. Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, was noncommittal, citing Mr. Obama as the person responsible for making sure that military cuts did not harm national security.” Support extends beyond leadership into the rank-and-file as well. The Times notes, “And while Republican lawmakers with strong ties to the Pentagon and the defense industry will be aggressive in asserting that the automatic cuts will harm the military, many newer conservative lawmakers are more devoted to cutting spending than to bolstering the Pentagon budget, potentially diluting the party’s support for restoring the money. ‘If the plan is to exempt only defense spending from sequestration,’ said Will Adams, a spokesman for Representative Justin Amash, a freshman Republican from Michigan, ‘he does not support it.’” Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) also tells POLITICO today, “Every military base I go to, and everybody that works in the military that I’ve talked to, says, ‘We can save 10 [percent] to 15 percent anywhere.’” [NY Times, 11/22/11. Sen. Coburn via POLITICO, 12/1/11]

What We’re Reading

Vice President Biden hailed what he described as a “new phase” in the relationship between the United States and Iraq at the launch of talks with the Iraqi government on ways to restructure ties after U.S. troops have departed.

Britain shut its Tehran embassy, expelled Iran’s diplomats, and said the attacks on its diplomatic compounds in Tehran could not have taken place without a degree of consent from elements within Iran’s leadership.

The top U.S. military officer denied allegations by a senior army official in Islamabad that a NATO attack that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers was a deliberate act of aggression.

Islamists claimed a decisive victory as early election results put them on track to win a dominant majority in Egypt’s first Parliament since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton offered Myanmar the first rewards for reform, saying the United States would back more aid for the reclusive country and consider returning an ambassador after an absence of some two decades.

European finance ministers said that they were counting on an agreement next week on stronger fiscal union to restore investor confidence in the euro zone and persuade the European Central Bank or the International Monetary Fund to intervene to restore calm in debt markets.

The Nigerian Islamist terrorist group Boko Haram poses an “emerging threat” to the United States and is set to join other al Qaeda affiliates in plotting attacks against the U.S. homeland, a congressional panel said.

Radioactive debris from melted fuel rods may have seeped deeper into the floor of a Japan’s tsunami-hit nuclear reactor than previously thought, to within a foot from breaching the crucial steel barrier.

America’s military pact with Australia is a figment of “Cold War thinking” that will destabilize the Asia-Pacific region, China’s Defense Ministry said.

The most elaborate cross-border tunnel ever found linking Mexico and United States – a passageway complete with electric rail cars, hydraulic doors and an elevator – was uncovered in a San Diego warehouse this week, along with a record haul of 32 tons of marijuana.

Commentary of the Day

On World AIDS Day, Alana Shaikh contrasts tremendous progress on the science of fighting AIDS with disappointing fallback in global commitment to the policy.

Christopher Hill welcomes the shift in strategy from the Middle East to the Pacific and states that it is long overdue.

Victor Davis Hanson examines the differences between the two surges in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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