Nuclear weapons: A bad security investment

Reducing or redirecting this wasteful spending brings together a bi-partisan medley of leading national security leaders, deficit hawks, and arms control experts.

ADVERTISEMENT
Last year, Senator Tom Coburn, (R-Okla.), a preeminent “deficit hawk” released a report “Back in Black” that outlined his view of the best way to balance the federal budget. He wrote, “The American people are tired of Washington waiting until the last minute to avoid a crisis…the crisis is Congress’ refusal to make hard choices and reduce a debt that has become our greatest national security threat.”

While no one would ever question Sen. Coburn’s commitment to a strong defense, his plan singled out nuclear weapons programs for up to $78 billion in cuts. He recommended reducing the size of the Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) force from 500 to 300, maintaining a reserve of nuclear weapons, reducing the size of the ballistic nuclear submarine fleet, and delaying the purchase of new bombers until the mid-2020s.

Coburn argued that redundant and unnecessary nuclear capabilities, more suited to the last century, were ideal places to cut fat from the federal budget and get our deficit under control. To his credit, he is honest about the reality that the Pentagon and the Department of Energy are every bit as responsible for wasteful spending as other government programs. He said at the time, “My goal is…to show the American people what is possible and necessary.”

Others see the dangers of inflated budgets for nuclear programs taking money from more important national security priorities. Almost a decade ago, General Colin Powell sounded a warning about the expense of America’s arsenal of nuclear weapons, "We have every incentive to reduce the number. These are expensive. They take away from soldier pay.” He added, “They take away from lots of things. There is no incentive to keep more than you believe you need for the security of the nation."

In March, Sen. John McCain similarly warned that the costs of a Cold War-era submarine fleet was threatening other priorities, “We are getting to a point where more than half of the Navy’s total shipbuilding budget will be required to build extraordinarily expensive nuclear submarines. I am worried that funding needed to modernize the surface fleet is being crowded out.”

Leading nuclear strategy analysts agree that there is little logic in high nuclear weapons spending focused primarily on countering Russia. Greg Thielmann, a former senior staff member of the Senate Intelligence Committee noted, “Smart planning should be grounded in the reality that the U.S.-Russia relationship, while contentious, is no longer the zero-sum game of a prior era.”

Sadly though, despite rare bi-partisan support for cuts and the fact that every dollar spent on nuclear weapons is a dollar not available to equip our troops for 21st Century threats, there are still those in Congress fighting to increase nuclear weapons spending for pork barrel or ideological reasons.
The House Armed Services Committee is considering spending billions on an East Coast missile defense program the Pentagon has explicitly rejected, and billions more on a nuclear weapons plant that the committee of oversight (Energy and Water) already eliminated, deeming it unnecessary.

As Laura Peterson, an analyst with Taxpayers for Common Sense, observed, “Ending earmarks has not ended congressional incentives to spend money on parochial projects, and that is particularly true for the defense bill.”

The American people are right to be fed up when our national security and economic interests are jeopardized by political self-interest. Cutting funding for nuclear programs will save the taxpayers money, and make it easier to redirect funds from outdated Cold War weapons to the training and equipment our troops need to face 21st Century threats.   

Major General Blunt (Ret.) is a Civil and Nuclear Engineer. Following a long career in the U.S. Army, he is now CEO of Essex Construction LLC.