Earlier this month, President Obama released a budget proposal for 2017, which includes billions of dollars for controversial modernization programs for each leg of the nuclear triad — land-based, sea-based and aircraft missiles — and cuts to nuclear nonproliferation programs. This is troubling for a number of reasons, never mind the irony that this spending spree comes from the same man who delivered a 2009 speech in Prague pledging “America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.”

Of top concern are requests to allocate $95.6 million for the research and development of a new nuclear-tipped cruise missile, replacing the current air-launched cruise missile whose mission has long-since faded into irrelevance. The plan would also nearly double our cruise missile collection to around 1,000 missiles. These additions have been denounced by a chorus of military experts and former national security advisors, including the father of the nuclear-armed cruise missile, former Secretary of Defense William Perry.

Other nuclear modernization programs in the budget request include:

  • $25.7 million for a nuclear capability for the new F-35A Joint Strike Fighter aircraft.
  • $113.9 million for the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent program, a replacement for the current Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile system.
  • $137.9 million for a new guided tail-kit for the B61 tactical nuclear weapon life-extension program.
  • $1.36 billion for the Long-Range Strike Bomber, which is planned to replace the current B-52 and B-2 bomber aircraft.
  • $1.86 billion for the Ohio Replacement Program, which would replace the current ballistic missile submarines, a program that the Navy has said they cannot afford.
  • $9.2 billion for nuclear weapons maintenance and security, including life-extension programs for a number of nuclear warheads.

Obama’s commitment to these programs puts the nation on track to spend $1 trillion on its nuclear arsenal over the next 30 years, exerting intense strain on future defense budgets. The bulk of that spending will occur at roughly the same time the United States plans to modernize its conventional (non-nuclear) forces -- forces that are actually capable of addressing 21st century security challenges.

This won’t come to a head until 2021, forcing future administrations to deal with a disastrous budget crisis. Ultimately, something will have to give. And as Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work said, “If that [nuclear modernization] comes out of our conventional forces, that will be very, very, very problematic for us.”

What’s more problematic is the decrease in nuclear nonproliferation programs by over $100 million. These are highly functional programs dedicated to keeping the world’s nearly 16,000 nuclear weapons out of terrorist hands and locking down vulnerable nuclear material.

In a global security climate traumatized by the rise of ISIS, decreasing nuclear nonproliferation programs seems a dangerously misguided trade-off. Current strains of violent extremism are more virulent, organized and better funded than ever. As we have seen, our adversaries seek to inflict not only grievous loss of life, but lasting psychological harm. Their achievements to date on that front pale in comparison to what they might accomplish should they manage to get their hands on a nuclear weapon.

This is not a far-fetched scenario: ISIS has already seized low-grade nuclear material from a facility in Mosul, and there are dozens more reports of nuclear weapons being lost and nuclear material gone missing or stolen. Some weapons have been recovered, some would-be smugglers caught. But these efforts are stop-gap at best.

We are utterly unprepared to respond to a catastrophe of that scale. Reversing budget cuts to these critical nonproliferation programs is an important and immediate treatment, but prevention is the only cure. We must get back on track to reducing the world’s nuclear arsenals and “drain the swamp” for aspiring nuclear terrorists.

The mindset and weapons of the Cold War are increasingly irrelevant in the 21st century and in the face of modern threats. As we’ve seen time and again, non-state actors will not be deterred by a nuclear arsenal of any size.

These realities are completely out of sync with the president’s prioritization of nuclear upgrades over nonproliferation.

But all is not lost.

As the budget moves on to Congress, it becomes more susceptible to public pressure. The new cruise missile can be cancelled without any detrimental affects to our national security. The same can be said about the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent program. While it is important to ensure the safety and security of our nuclear forces and infrastructure, unnecessary upgrades, such as those planned for the 200-or-so tactical nuclear weapons collecting dust in Europe, should be abandoned.


There is also the 2016 election to consider: The next American president will have the opportunity -- and the responsibility -- to correct our course.

We may have reason for cautious optimism. As we have seen in our many interactions with candidates on the campaign trail, major contenders in both parties have put the spread of nuclear weapons at the top of the list of things that keep them up at night. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Hillary Clinton have expressed disagreement with Obama’s proposed $1 trillion overhaul and pledged to pursue cuts to 1,000 weapons each in U.S.-Russian stockpiles. Several Republicans have also stated reservations about massive nuclear spending, expressing support for reductions in global arsenals and the “Reagan-esque” goal of a world without nuclear weapons.  

As Jeb Bush recently told a young Global Zero activist in Johnston, Iowa: The complete elimination of nuclear weapons would be “an incredible objective.” Presidential, one might say. Whether Number 45 rises to the occasion will depend largely on the American public’s determination to make it happen.

Johnson is the executive director of Global Zero, the international movement for a world without nuclear weapons. For more information, visit www.globalzero.org.