The Bloated Nuclear Weapons BudgetNovember 2, 2011
Published: October 29, 2011
Twenty years after the end of the cold war, the United States still has about 2,500 nuclear weapons deployed and 2,600 more as backup. The Obama administration, in an attempt to mollify Congressional Republicans, has also committed to modernizing an already hugely expensive complex of nuclear labs and production facilities. Altogether, these and other nuclear-related programs could cost $600 billion or more over the next decade. The country does not need to maintain this large an arsenal. It should not be spending so much to do it, especially when Congress is considering deep cuts in vital domestic programs.
A war with Russia is now unthinkable, conventional weapons are increasingly capable, and the main nuclear threat comes from Iran and North Korea. To have the credibility to try to contain their ambitions, the United States needs to be weaning itself from its reliance on nuclear weapons. Reducing the number of weapons, scaling back unnecessary modernization programs, and delaying or scrapping plans to replace some delivery systems will save billions and help make the world safer.
President Obama can start by speeding up already negotiated reductions in deployed weapons and committing to further cuts, unilaterally if necessary.
Washington and Moscow pledged in the 2010 New Start treaty to reduce their number of deployed long-range nuclear weapons to 1,550 from 2,200 by 2017. But unless something changes, both countries will increase nuclear spending in coming years, as they replace or upgrade aging nuclear production facilities and delivery vehicles — submarines, missiles and bombers. That makes no sense.
The Global Zero campaign believes that as an interim step, the country can go down to 1,000 warheads, deployed and stored, without jeopardizing security. We agree.
President Obama endorses the goal of a nuclear-free world. But he has not gotten very far with his promise to negotiate even deeper reductions with Moscow.
In his push to win votes for the New Start treaty, Mr. Obama gave away far too much to balking Republican senators. He promised to invest an extra $85 billion over 10 years for the nuclear labs to maintain and modernize the arsenal, including overhauling thousands of older bombs that should be retired. He proposed spending $125 billion over the next decade for a new fleet of nuclear-armed submarines, 100 new bombers, a new land-based intercontinental ballistic missile and two other missiles.
Senior military officials acknowledge that hard decisions must be made — including possibly eliminating one leg of the nuclear triad. In July, Gen. James Cartwright, then vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called for a reassessment of where nuclear weapons fit in today’s world.
All Americans need to be part of that discussion, as does the Congressional “supercommittee,” charged with coming up with a plan to reduce the deficit by $1.5 trillion over 10 years. Here are sound cuts for the nuclear budget:
Senator Tom Coburn, one of the few Republicans to support nuclear reductions, has called for cutting the number of deployed strategic warheads to 1,220, the ballistic missile submarine fleet to 11 from 14, and intercontinental ballistic missiles to 300 from 500. He also favors delaying the purchase of new bombers until the mid 2020s. Total savings, according to Mr. Coburn, would be at least $79 billion over the next decade. It is a smart beginning.
Don’t modernize the B61 tactical nuclear bombs in Europe. No one can imagine that the United States would ever use a nuclear weapon on a European battlefield, and Washington is in discussions with NATO to bring them home to be dismantled. If the Europeans want to keep them for political reasons, let them pick up the tab. Savings: $1.6 billion.
Halt construction of the new plutonium storage facility at Los Alamos National Laboratory. Costs have increased tenfold, and there are serious safety questions about the location — along a fault line and near an active volcano. Savings: $2.9 billion.
Halt construction of the Energy Department’s Savannah River facility that is supposed to recycle plutonium from dismantled weapons into mox, a fuel for nuclear power plants. The sole customer for the fuel dropped the contract. Savings: $4 billion.
Cancel the uranium processing facility in Oak Ridge, Tenn. The nonpartisan Project on Government Oversight says that with $100 million in upgrades, another facility there can do the work. Savings: $6 billion.
Down-blend more of the 400 metric tons of highly enriched uranium in United States weapons stocks for sale to nuclear power plants. The administration has neglected this, while investing in programs that increase the life of nuclear warheads. Revenue: $23 billion.
The country will need some number of nuclear weapons for the foreseeable future. And it must ensure that they are safe and reliable. But spending on the arsenal must be rational and consistent with national security goals — not driven by inertia or politics.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: November 1, 2011
An editorial on Sunday about the nuclear weapons budget incorrectly described the positions of the former secretaries of state, George Shultz, James Baker and Henry Kissinger. All three have endorsed the eventual goal of a world without nuclear weapons. Mr. Kissinger is not a supporter of the Global Zero campaign. Mr. Shultz and Mr. Baker have participated in Global Zero events, but have not endorsed its call for a quick, interim cut to 1,000 nuclear warheads.