by Kingston Reif
By now most readers are likely aware of the dustup surrounding Glenn Kessler’s November 30 Fact Checker story on the Ploughshares Fund’s estimate that the U.S. plans to spend $700 billion on nuclear weapons and related programs over the next decade. Kessler concluded that there are a number of problems with the $700 billion figure. Ploughshares issued a defense of its methodology that can be read here.
The question of how much the U.S. spends on nuclear weapons has become especially salient in light of the Supercommittee’s recent failure to approve a plan to shrink the budget deficit by at least $1.2 trillion over the next decade, triggering an automatic sequester that if implemented could result in reductions of $500 billion to planned defense spending between fiscal year 2013 and 2022. These cuts would come on top of the more than $450 billion in reductions to the increases in spending the Pentagon is already planning on over the next decade. Even these lesser cuts will force the military to scale back to a degree.
As I noted when I first waded into this debate about a month ago, there are two key takeaways.
First, it’s difficult for Congress to exercise effective oversight and make difficult budget choices without reliable financial data, and exactly how much the U.S. spends on nuclear weapons remains a mystery, particularly at the Pentagon. Rep. Turner, following on the heels of the administration, wants you to believe that the Departments of Defense and Energy will “only” spend $214 billion on nuclear weapons over the next decade. But a number of reputable sources, including the Congressional Budget Office, believe that this estimate does not capture all of the costs – to say nothing about spending on related programs such as defense environmental cleanup, nuclear threat reduction, and missile defense. If the Ploughshares estimate is too large, then the administration’s estimate of $214 in planned spending on nuclear weapons is almost certainly too low.
The nuclear weapons budget is one of the many areas within the Pentagon where more reliable financial accounting is needed. Fortunately, a growing number of Republican and Democratic members of Congress are insisting that the Department of Defense be more transparent and accountable about how its spends its dollars, as it is one of only two Cabinet-level agencies that is unable to audit its books. As Rep. J. Randy Forbes (R-VA) has noted, “How in the world can we determine how much money the Pentagon needs if we don’t know how much they are spending and where it is going?” On December 1 the Senate approved a bipartisan amendment to the Senate version of the Fiscal Year 2012 defense authorization bill requiring the Pentagon be prepared for an audit by September 2014.
It’s long past time Congress and the public had a full accounting of the whole range of costs to operate, support, sustain, and refurbish the U.S. nuclear arsenal.
(UPDATE 12/14: In his recent excellent post on this issue, Jeffrey Lewis argues that the debate about the total size of the U.S. nuclear weapons budget “from a policy perspective, is ultimately irrelevant: the coming cuts will occur to specific program elements, not the general-interest ballpark estimate. The $200 billion estimate isn’t all the spending on nuclear weapons, and certainly not their cost, but it is where the budget-cutters will turn first.” I think there’s a lot of truth to this, as I suggest below, but it doesn’t change the need for an accurate cost accounting.)
The second, and more important, point is that whether you agree with Ploughshares or Turner, the fact is that the U.S. will spend hundreds of billions of dollars on nuclear weapons over the next decade and beyond. Is such spending affordable given today’s budgetary constraints? Does it make strategic sense for the U.S. to build an excessive number of new nuclear weapons delivery systems and new warhead production facilities that could saddle the U.S. with a bloated nuclear arsenal for the next half century? The answers are clearly “No.”
In recent months, numerous high-ranking military leaders and Pentagon civilians have questioned the affordability of the current nuclear weapons spending plans and are looking for ways to maintain a credible and survivable nuclear deterrent at reduced cost. For example, Gen. James Cartwright, former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters in July, “The challenge here is that we have to recapitalize all three legs [of the nuclear triad], and we don’t have the money to do it.”
STRATCOM Commander Gen. Kehler echoed similar sentiments at a November 2 House hearing on nuclear weapons policy. Commenting on current plans to build twelve new ballistic missile submarines at a price tag of $110 billion, Gen. Kehler stated “affordability has to be an issue here. What we don’t have to make a decision on today is what the ultimate number of submarines is that we might have to deploy depending on the world situation that we find as we go to the out-years.”
The Pentagon is no doubt grappling with the reality that every dollar that is spent on nuclear weapons is a dollar that can’t be spent on higher priority programs that address 21st century threats. To avoid excessive cuts to essential programs, we must closely scrutinize the nuclear weapons budget.
Not only does scaling back spending on nuclear weapons make financial sense, but it makes strategic sense as well.
As I’ll detail in greater depth in an article to be published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists this week, the threat of sequestration provides a long overdue opportunity to reexamine the outdated assumptions that require the United States to maintain approximately 5,000 nuclear weapons nearly 20 years after the end of the Cold War. Such an arsenal is powerless to address current security priorities such as terrorism, cyber security, and the upgrading of conventional air and naval power projection capabilities.
If the ongoing Pentagon-led review of deterrence requirements does what it should and reconfigures these requirements to reflect the fact that nuclear weapons today play a much smaller role in national security strategy than ever, the need to maintain as many weapons and purchase as many replacements for aging systems disappears. And by maintaining fewer weapons and purchasing fewer replacement systems, the U.S. could save billions while still retaining an enormously potent deterrent.