In elementary school, they taught us that March comes in like a lion, and this year, it’s especially true – and not just for basketball fans. This March 1st brought with it the dreaded budget sequester – the automatic, across-the-board federal budget cuts that have prompted doomsday predictions about the government not being able to function, as well as a lot of slideshows of cute animals.
So now that March 1st has rolled around and the Pentagon hasn’t yet been downsized to a square, what exactly is going on with the defense budget? The main thing you need to know is the sequester cuts approximately $48 billion from national defense (specifically the “050” budget function, covering the Department of Defense, the nuclear weapons-related spending at the Department of Energy, and a few other areas) over the next seven months. This is actually the sum total of two sequesters – one that already happened on March 1, and a smaller one set to occur on March 27, 2013.
Technically, approximately $500 billion must come out of the 050 budget function over the next ten years, or until Congress and the White House devise a replacement budget that reduces the deficit by the amounts mandated by the Budget Control Act. Alternatively, Congress could adjust or even eliminate the sequester as part of negotiations to replace the current continuing resolution set to expire on March 26. March Madness indeed.
Hopefully it won’t take ten years to come up with a bipartisan budget agreement that cuts spending in a more sensible way than the “meat-cleaver” approach of sequestration. And that brings us to the important question: as Congress looks to stop the madness and devise a workable budget, what can be cut from the Pentagon budget without compromising national security?
We’ve argued in this space and elsewhere that the nuclear weapons budget is an ideal place to look for savings. Over the next ten years, nuclear weapons and related programs will cost roughly $640 billion. Compare that to the $500 billion in savings (over the same amount of time) that we need to find to replace the automatic cuts, and it starts to seem like we could save some money on nuclear weapons.
By one estimate, maintaining and upgrading our current nuclear arsenal costs the Pentagon over $30 billion a year. In this budget climate, it makes sense to ask whether expensive nuclear weapons programs are the right place to be spending scarce defense dollars.
Consider some examples: the Navy’s plan to build a whole new fleet of ballistic missile submarines will cost about $100 billion. By reducing the size of the fleet, we could save $18 billion over the next ten years – without having to reduce the number of nuclear warheads that the submarines carry. Another $18 billion in savings could come from delaying development of a new strategic bomber – an option recommended by Republican Senator Tom Coburn in a deficit reduction plan called “Back in Black.” And we’ll spend another $10 billion alone to modernize the B61 gravity bomb, a 1950s-era weapon that numerous military officials have described as having “no military value.” The examples go on and on.
Of course, this is far from the only area where the Pentagon spends a lot. What’s doubly doable about cutting the nuclear budget is that it makes fiscal sense as well as strategic sense – as strategist Bernard Brodie famously put it, “strategy wears a dollar sign.” True, trimming the arsenal will save money, but its primary benefit is to increase U.S. national security. Nuclear reductions with Russia could promote more stable US-Russia relations and help bring more countries into the disarmament process.
I’ve digressed from the discussion of sequestration and the budget – but in some ways, that’s the point. From a strategic point of view, nuclear reductions would make sense even if they didn’t free up billions of dollars for more useful defense programs. But they do that too. And that’s why nuclear spending at Cold War levels must be on the table in the ensuing search for budget savings.
The budget crisis in general, and the sequester specifically, will force government agencies to make tough choices about what they can and can’t afford. But targeting the bloated nuclear weapons budget shouldn’t be a difficult call: in fact, given the financial and strategic benefits, it should be a no-brainer.