Nuclear Turkeys

By the time you sit down for Thanksgiving dinner, the 12-member congressional supercommittee will have succeeded in meeting its November 23 deadline to approve a plan to shrink the budget deficit by at least $1.2 trillion over the next decade.

Or it will have failed – and produced a turkey instead.

A Missile in Every Pot, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib.The entire government is subject to scrutiny, including military spending. As Air Force Secretary Michael Donley put it recently, “Defense cannot be exempted from efforts to get our financial house in order.”

If the supercommittee fails, planned Pentagon spending could be reduced by as much as $1 trillion between 2012 and 2021.

Even smaller-scale cuts, including the estimated $450 billion by which the Pentagon is already planning to reduce its spending plans, would force the military to scale back to a degree.

This means that we need to make smart decisions about what’s most needed to safeguard U.S. national security. We should spend scarce resources on the weapons we need for current threats, and not on weapons to combat threats that no longer exist.

The Pentagon’s budget is too geared toward hardware once thought necessary to defeat the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Military spending should instead address today’s security threats, such as weak or failing states, cyber-security breaches, and nuclear terrorism.

One glaring example of the Pentagon’s misplaced priorities is its nuclear weapons budget.

The United States currently plans to spend around $110 billion to build a new fleet of nuclear-armed submarines. The Pentagon estimates the total cost of building and operating the new subs at nearly $350 billion over the next 50 years. The Air Force also intends to spend $55 billion on procuring 100 new bombers and an unknown sum on new land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Additionally, the National Nuclear Security Administration plans to spend $88 billion over the next decade to refurbish existing nuclear warheads and rebuild the factories that make key warhead parts.

While nuclear weapons today play a much smaller role in U.S. national security strategy than in the past, Washington retains approximately 5,000 nuclear weapons, far more than it would ever need to maintain our security. Such an excessive arsenal is irrelevant to the most likely threats we face, and it poses financial and opportunity costs that can’t be justified in the current economic climate.

Advocates of increased nuclear-weapons spending argue that budget cuts shouldn’t touch these programs. Not surprisingly, every branch of the military says the same thing about its own programs. Yet, as former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said repeatedly, nothing can be “off the table” when difficult budget choices are required.

The need to prioritize is particularly important as the Pentagon calculates the opportunity costs of building new nuclear-weapons delivery systems at the expense of other more important priorities.

For example, a recent draft of the Navy’s 30-year shipbuilding blueprint revealed that the plan to build 12 new nuclear-armed submarines would reduce the number of conventional ships in the 30-year plan by 56 boats.

Members of Congress and experts have suggested that by building and deploying eight new nuclear-armed submarines instead of a dozen of them, the United States could still deploy the same number of nuclear weapons at sea as is currently planned (about 1,000) and save billions that could be better spent elsewhere.

These are the kinds of fiscally prudent options that supercommittee lawmakers and Pentagon officials ought to consider before they head home for Thanksgiving.

Kingston Reif is the director of nuclear non-proliferation at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. www.armscontrolcenter.org
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