Bill Hartung, the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy, did not mince words when asked about the Trump administration’s new nuclear budget.
“It’s an outrage,” he said. “It’s the only thing that’s going up dramatically in the entire budget. Even other parts of the military aren’t getting this kind of treatment.”
Trump’s FY 2021 proposal calls for $29 billion in nuclear modernization spending. Coupled with nearly $20 billion in warhead funding, another $20 billion for missile defense, and $6 billion on environmental cleanup, and the overall nuclear budget rockets to a stratospheric $75 billion.
Hartung suspects at least some of this spending splurge is related to uncertainty over who will occupy the White House next year.
“They try and pump as much money into these programs early on,” he explained, “so they can get a pork barrel constituency to make it harder to roll it back.”
“Once you start bending metal, then you can be in multiple locations around the country. At which point you’ve got Members [of Congress] who have to think twice: ‘Do I want to vote against this? It means jobs in my state, jobs in my district.’”
A larger motivator may be the congenital impulse of the Defense Department to secure its heightened relevance well into the future. This is especially true now, as emerging demographic and economic trends threaten to squeeze state coffers by mid-century.
“There’s some question of how the overall Pentagon budget is going to go,” said Hartung. “The one thing I would agree with the Secretary of Defense about is that they have no guarantee that it is going to be an ever-upward budget.”
“Every time there is a potential dip in Pentagon spending, the military establishment - the military-industrial complex - comes up with a new enemy,” he continued. “We saw that at the end of the Cold War. Suddenly Iraq and North Korea were inflated into these huge threats.”
But even those threats have taken a backseat to the new, almost evangelical gospel of “great power competition” that has swept through Washington in recent years. Adherents of this sect point to the uptick in tension with Moscow and Beijing, preaching the need to re-equip the U.S. military to fight large, expensive, conventional wars with so-called “peer adversaries.”
In an era of flatlining budgets, such a threat assessment is a potent funding multiplier. And the Pentagon knows it.
“To some degree, the focus on Russia and China is a marketing campaign,” Hartung explained. “But China’s economic rise is not going to change because we build more aircraft carriers. If anything, they’re going to outcompete us because we’re investing in the wrong things.”
“They’re spending money on alternative energy technologies. We’re not,” he said. “They’re building a modern economy. We’re letting our economy deteriorate. We’re not spending enough on science and engineering. We’re not spending enough on basic health issues. We’re not spending on dealing with climate change.”
“The most urgent challenges we face are being pushed aside. And the biggest item of increase in our budget is nuclear weapons.”
If this feels like historical deja vu, that’s because it is. But not in the way most Americans would prefer.
“It’s sort of funny,” said Hartung. A lot of the hawks who talk about the end of the Cold War say we spent the Soviets into oblivion, that their economy couldn’t withstand these huge levels of military spending.”
“And here we are doing it to ourselves.”