Nuclear Visions and Nuclear Budgets | Commentary

President Barack Obama’s fiscal 2016 budget request continues the political gamesmanship that has plagued the U.S. government for five years. Exceeding legislated budget caps on both defense and non-defense discretionary spending by $75 billion, the president is show- boating for his core domestic constituencies while trying to undermine Republican claims he is weak on defense. The primary victims of these political games, of course, are the citizens of this country, who once again will be deprived of a government that can plan rationally for the nation’s well-being.

Although the president has continued the game, the new Republican Congress has the opportunity to break the cycle. It could, if it chooses, review both sides of the budget and send the president appropriations that exceed the budget caps more modestly, and remain balanced between defense and non-defense. Such a bill would be hard for Obama to veto. It would require, however, that the Republicans look as closely at waste in the defense budget, as they do on domestic programs.

One place to start is with the request for nuclear forces and their modernization. The FY16 request shows a monumental disconnect between the nuclear vision once espoused by Obama and the real decisions made by his administration.

The latest report on U.S. nuclear forces by the Congressional Budget Office puts the 10-year cost of America’s nuclear enterprise at $348 billion, or $35 billion per year. Nuclear spending has grown rapidly under the Obama administration, and will rise further with implementation of an extensive modernization plan. Priced at more than $1 trillion over the next 30 years, the Defense Department’s plan includes the development of new nuclear submarines and missiles, a new long-range bomber and air-launched cruise missile, enhanced bombs for tactical aircraft, and modernization of the nation’s land-based missiles. Separately, the Department of Energy is pursuing expensive plans to rebuild the nation’s facilities that produce nuclear materials and weapon components.

Massive nuclear deployments and rapid modernization were the unquestioned American policies during the Cold War, but the situation today is vastly different. The United States enjoys a dominant political and economic position in the world and far-ranging conventional military superiority. While there are obvious limits on our ability to impose our will on others, these capabilities are the real bulwarks of American security. Nuclear weapons have been useless in the real wars the U.S. has fought for the past 14 years in the Middle East, just as they are irrelevant in stopping renewed Russian and Chinese assertiveness in their respective regions. In all these cases, the U.S. must rely on diplomacy and economic instruments of power, and when those fail, on the greater size, advanced technologies, and superior qualities and training of the warfighters of its conventional armed forces. Yet, limited funds are being diverted from these vital purposes to support an out-of-date nuclear policy.

The United States does not require a $35 billion per year nuclear budget and a 5,000 nuclear weapons stockpile to ensure its security and accomplish its foreign policy goals. Last year, Sen. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., and others proposed a bill that would reduce nuclear spending by $100 billion over 10 years. Among other things, it would have slowed strategic submarine development and reduced the size of the force, delayed ICBM modernization, and scaled back plans to rebuild the nuclear infrastructure. A new bill along these lines with bipartisan support could create a more appropriate and fiscally sustainable nuclear program that neither harms relevant U.S. defense capabilities nor breaks the defense budget. It would free up resources, moreover, for maintaining the U.S. edge in conventional military technologies, as well as permit the nation to build sufficient numbers of the capabilities that really protect U.S. security. Just ending the tactical nuclear bomb program would save $8 billion, for example, enough to build roughly 40 F-35 fifth generation stealth fighters.

Early in his first term, Obama committed himself to the vision of a world free of nuclear weapons. He promised to renew arms-control negotiations, narrow the roles of nuclear weapons in U.S. policy, reduce U.S. stockpiles and facilitate international nuclear cooperation. Will Congress remind the president why he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize? It’s unlikely, but a nice dream.

Barry Blechman is co-founder of the Stimson Center. Kara Junttila is a researcher with the Managing Across Boundaries initiative at the Stimson Center. Want More Stories Like This? Subscribe to our Thought Leaders Newsletter.