A budget where nukes beat diplomacy?
Which should rank higher on America’s to-do list: engaging with the world or preparing to nuke it?
This year, the Trump administration can’t decide. To sustain and recapitalize America’s nuclear weapons arsenal, the Departments of Defense and Energy are seeking just over $44 billion combined. Meanwhile, the State Department, U.S. Agency for International Development, and all other international programs are asking for a discretionary budget totaling—you guessed it—just over $44 billion.
Don’t worry, though: like a shady adjustable-rate mortgage, this year’s nuclear budget request is just the low-ball teaser. Costs will balloon in the coming decade. When I worked at the White House Office of Management and Budget, I had a technical term for that kind of budgeting: “Bonkers.”
It is strategic malpractice to spend as much preparing for nuclear war—a war Ronald Reagan said could never be won and must never be fought—as all the diplomacy and life-saving foreign aid we use to win global good will.
Credible threats of devastating nuclear retaliation may well deter attacks that our massive conventional power alone cannot. But nuclear weapons’ unparalleled ferocity also limits the national security problems they can solve.
Yet after a quarter-century post-Soviet lull in major tensions with Russia and two post–9/11 decades mired in conventional fights against weak states and terrorist insurgents, many in Congress and the executive branch seem to have lost grasp of just how exceedingly destructive nuclear weapons are.
Consider these numbers: 2 and 11 versus 5,000 and 90,000.
The 1995 truck bomb that killed 168 men, women, and children while destroying the Oklahoma City federal building carried a force of about 2 tons of TNT. The 2017 attack on an ISIS cave complex in Afghanistan with America’s largest conventional bomb, the Massive Ordnance Air Blast, unleashed some 11 tons of TNT equivalent.
By contrast, the newly deployed “low-yield” nuclear W76-2 warhead for our submarine-launched ballistic missile reportedly wields some 5,000 tons of TNT blast power. Each full-power W76-1 warhead—the centerpiece of America’s nuclear arsenal—likely releases some 90,000 tons of TNT explosive equivalent. And nuclear weapons flood vast areas with massive amounts of radiation and terrifying levels of heat and light, a long-term environmental catastrophe.
These effects explain why the only Americans who could actually order a nuclear strike—each president from Truman to Trump—have refrained from repeating 1945’s attacks on Japan. However grave each new threat—from missiles in Cuba to attacks on New York and Washington—nuclear war has remained too dreadful a path to choose.
As the Departments of Defense, Energy, and State defend their budget requests, few members of Congress doubt whether America should retain a nuclear deterrent against Russia, China, and others. But Congress absolutely should question the administration’s calls to simultaneously fund—stay with me here—a new fleet of ballistic missile submarines, a new nuclear bomber force, a new intercontinental ballistic missile, a new air-launched nuclear-tipped cruise missile, a new sea-launched nuclear-tipped cruise missile, nuclear capability for F-35 fighters, an overhauled gravity-dropped nuclear bomb, an overhauled cruise missile warhead, an updated sub-launched ballistic missile nuclear warhead, an overhauled ground-launched ballistic missile warhead, and another all-new sub-launched ballistic missile nuclear warhead.
Budgets and strategies are choices. Every day, America’s diplomats and foreign aid providers advance our nation’s security by moving the world toward our interests in ways large and small. Yet those diplomatic and development missions are perpetually starved for the funding that nuclear weapons advocates demand for each system they dream up.
This year’s proposal to spend at least as much on preparing for nuclear war as we do on diplomatically influencing the world puts us at a strategic crossroads. Each ounce of prevention we invest in our alliances and good works is worth more national security value than kilotons of any nuclear weapons “cure.”
The budget choices Congress makes this year should reflect that strategic truth.