How to Shave a Bundle Off the Deficit: Spend Less on Nukes

Congress is in the midst of an intense debate over a massive defense spending bill, and budget negotiations between the Administration and congressional leaders are at a pivotal stage. One key part of our nation's budget must be on the table: nuclear weapons.

The government is set to spend almost $700 billion on nuclear weapons over the next 10 years, roughly as much as it spent on the war in Iraq over the decade. Most of the money will be spent without any clear guidance on how many weapons we need and for what purpose. Procurement is racing ahead of policy.

President Obama is struggling to implement the updated nuclear strategy agreed upon by the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Department of Defense in last year's Nuclear Posture Review. The administration's plans to reduce the roles and numbers of nuclear weapons have yet to be translated into specific guidance to the military services. This, say officials, will take until the end of this year.

Meanwhile, contracts for new weapons zoom ahead, with Congress set to approve billions in new funding this year. A procurement-policy gap is opening up that threatens to lock in the old nuclear posture for a new generation. As Forbes recently noted, "Barack Obama is likely to spend more money on the U.S. nuclear arsenal than any U.S. president since Ronald Reagan."

Right now, the United States spends about $54 billion each year on nuclear weapons and weapons-related programs. President Obama has pledged to increase the budgets by about $2 billion a year for new bomb factories, plus spend about $12 billion more per year over the next decade to develop a new generation of nuclear-armed missiles, submarines and bombers. Some of these programs are essential. Many are not.

As long as nuclear weapons exist, we will need some to deter nuclear threats from others. But do we need to duplicate the entire nuclear triad for another 50 years?

That is the current plan. The Pentagon budget includes funds to develop a new fleet of 12 nuclear-armed submarines with an estimated cost of $110 billion, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Also planned is $55 billion for 100 new bombers, and a new missile to replace the recently upgraded 450 Minutemen III intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Meanwhile, the Department of Energy is planning to add new military capabilities to nearly every warhead in the active nuclear stockpile, with programs stretching beyond 2030. The department will spend over $85 billion over the next ten years on these programs, plus construction of new facilities.

All these cost estimates are likely to rise. The price of the Navy sub, for example, nearly doubled in three years and defense officials are struggling to bring it back down. Typically, contractors and military services low-ball initial estimates to win program approval. Once budgets are locked in, programs build constituent support, thwarting cancellation even as costs double or triple.

How does this spiraling spending square with military plans, as stated in the nuclear review, to "better align our nuclear policies and posture to our most urgent priorities"? The Navy subs alone would be able to carry roughly 800 nuclear bombs through the middle of the century. Are we putting our money where the threats are?

Spending on weapons designed to fight last century's conflict drains funds from weapons needed for today's challenges. The services already feel the nuclear budget burden. In 2009, the Navy said it would have to cut 56 vessels from its shipbuilding budget in order to afford the 12 new nuclear-armed subs. The Navy recognizes the problem, but does not have a solution.

This is where Congress comes in. Members should not approve any of these new programs without a nuclear roadmap.

The consensus among military officials and bipartisan security experts is that nuclear reductions enhance U.S. national security. As the Nuclear Posture Review says, "Our most pressing security challenge at present is preventing nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism, for which a nuclear force of thousands of weapons has little relevance."

Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and former Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov recommend that the U.S. and Russia reduce from the current 1,550 strategic warheads each side can deploy to no more than 1,000. This could save billions annually. In 2006, Steven Kosiak, now at the Office of Management and Budget, estimated that the United States could sustain an arsenal of this size for one-third the current annual cost.

Does the administration agree? Or does it have a different plan? Congress needs updated studies on potential savings and all projected costs. Only then can it rationally choose whether to save funds by reducing arsenals or increase funds to maintain the current force indefinitely.

The Atlantic