Obama Boosts Nukes

On February 1, the Obama administration delivered a budget request calling for a full 10 percent increase in nuclear weapons spending next year, to be followed by further increases in subsequent years.

These increases, if enacted, would bring the recent six-year period of flat and declining nuclear weapons budgets to an abrupt end. Not since 2005 has Congress approved such a large nuclear weapons budget. Seeing Obama’s request Linton Brooks, who ran the National Nuclear Security Administration for President Bush from 2003 to 2007, remarked to Nuclear Weapons and Materials Monitor, “I would’ve killed for this kind of budget.”

Largest Since Manhattan Project

Obama’s request includes more than twice last year’s funding for a $5 billion upgrade to plutonium warhead core (“pit”) production facilities at Los Alamos. If the budget request passes intact, Los Alamos would see a 22 percent budget increase in a single year, its biggest since the Manhattan Project.

The request proposes major upgrades to certain bombs as well as the design, and ultimately production, of a new ballistic missile warhead. Warhead programs are increased almost across the board, with the notable exception of dismantlement, which is set to decline dramatically. A continued scientific push to develop simulations and experiments to partially replace nuclear testing is evident.

All these initiatives and others are embedded in an overall military budget bigger than any since the 1940s that includes renewed funding for the development of advanced delivery vehicles, cruise missiles, and plenty of money for nuclear deployments.

Linked to START

This proposed “surge” responds to a December 2009 request from Senate Republicans (plus Lieberman) for significant increases in nuclear weapons spending. Such increases, these senators said, were necessary (but not necessarily sufficient) to obtain their ratification votes for a follow-on to the START treaty (which expired in December).

As of this writing the new treaty remains under negotiation. Ratification of any treaty requires 67 votes, a much higher hurdle than the 60 needed to break a filibuster. As the 2010 campaign season begins in earnest, it remains to be seen if this expansive nuclear spending package is anywhere near hawkish enough to buy the necessary votes.

Also, key politicians of both parties have pork-barrel interests in the nuclear weapons complex, interests not confined by the boundaries of their districts and states. In today’s Congress, money and influence flow freely across these lines. The contracts at stake are big by any standard.Nuclear weapons complex contractors are among the nation’s largest recipients of contract dollars. So far in FY 2010, seven of the top 10 U.S. contractors are nuclear weapons site management contractors or partners.

For their part, most Democrats assume — despite a small mountain of evidence otherwise — that a nuclear weapons spending surge is genuinely needed. Some of the administration officials behind this surge have been retained from the Bush administration. Others, like Undersecretary of State Ellen Tauscher, are Democratic hawks. There are no doves.

Squared with Prague?

This increase in spending on the nuclear complex does not contradict Obama’s public statements, for example in Prague in April 2009, that he would “seek” nuclear disarmament. In contrast to Picasso’s famous dictum (“Others seek, I find”), Obama has said only that he would “seek” disarmament. Despite the powers theoretically available to him as commander-in-chief, which encompass every aspect of nuclear deployment and procurement, Obama has said nothing about finding disarmament.

In many ways the President is building on the rhetorical foundation laid in January 2007 by the so-called “Four Horsemen” — George Schultz, Henry Kissinger, William Perry, and Sam Nunn — who with 16 others laid out their rationale for a “world free of nuclear weapons.” These men did not, either in their original op-ed or in their subsequent ones, actually advocate any but the vaguest steps toward actual disarmament.

What they offered instead was aspirational rhetoric that was all-too-uncritically received in most circles. Subsequently, three of the four supported the Bush administration’s Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) or its equivalent, and Perry co-convened an influential nuclear policy report that called for funding increases, new construction, and replacement warheads. Their op-ed last month calling for a big increase in nuclear weapons spending brought these rhetorical contradictions sharply into view. Nuclear disarmament, even as an aspiration, was missing.

No New Nukes?

Administration spokespersons have been quick to say there are no “new” warheads under consideration. That is because the word “new” can simply never be used in connection with warheads, no matter how many changes are involved. Last year’s Defense Authorization Act, authored by then-congresswoman Ellen Tauscher (D-Livermore), builds a spectrum of potential innovation into the structure of the “Stockpile Management” program.

Last year, the administration requested and received a great deal of money for what amounts to a new bomb, mostly for European deployment, without the embarrassment of talking about a “new” bomb like George Bush did. George Orwell would be proud.

These linguistic innovations go back to 1996, when weapons administrators and contractors sought a politically palatable path to warhead innovation. At that time, Clinton administration bureaucrats consciously chose to emphasize themes of “replacement” and “stewardship” in describing programs they knew (and privately said at the time) would result in new warheads. As attendees at one 1996 meeting said, even “the use of the word ‘warhead’ may not be acceptable.” Linguistic cleansing paved the way for this month’s proposed spending surge.

Next Step: Congress

Will Congress, especially the Democratic members of Congress, fund these increases? In part the answer depends on how seriously they take the several converging crises facing the country and the planet, and how seriously they address populist anger about the economy, especially in relation to their own reelection prospects.

In many ways the proposed nuclear weapons budget, and the defense budget overall, can be seen as bold raids on a diminishing pool of resources, as well as very real commitments to fading imperial pretensions. Nuclear weapons compete directly with the renewable energy and conservation jobs funded in the Energy and Water funding bills.

Congress therefore has to decide, and citizens have to help them decide, between a new generation of nuclear weapons and the factories to make them or the greener alternative of energy and climate security and the better economic prospects that would ensue.

Nuclear weapons are an especially dangerous investment for a declining hegemon. The sooner we choose a nuclear weapons path involving less and less money, not more and more, the sooner we will be able to wake from the hubris and pervasive violence currently destroying us.

Greg Mello is the executive director of the Los Alamos Study Group and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.