The Nuclear Arsenal We Don’t Need
Russia has invaded Ukraine. Tough sanctions and a unified negotiating front are proving the only tactics able to slow Iran’s previous march to the bomb. And Pakistan, the world’s most unstable nuclear power, might be overthrown by thousands of fanatical protesters led by a cricketer-cum-cleric.
Don’t we have a nuclear deterrent to prevent these sorts of things from happening? As we contemplate spending a third of a trillion dollars updating our nuclear weapons, perhaps it’s time to rethink whether our Cold War strategy still works in a post-9/11 world.
Our nuclear arsenal needs updating. We have 450 Minuteman-III ICBMs that started rolling off the line in 1970. We commissioned the Ohio class nuclear submarines in 1981. The B-52s were built in the ’60s, and their more controversial B-2 cousins date back to 1989. Many of these armaments — technological marvels in their time — were built so we’d never use them, but they won’t last forever. If we don’t deal with our aging stockpile of Armageddon, we might end up nuking ourselves.
We’ve got about 4,800 nuclear bombs nearing their sell-by dates, and now we have to modernize this arsenal that we never intend to use. And it’s not just the missiles themselves — the subs and the bombers also contribute to what’s called the “strategic triad.” Add in the chillingly euphemistic “tactical” nukes (weapons optimized especially for short-range fighting), and the price tag for updating our Cold War rumpus room is staggering.
The Congressional Budget Office says modernizing our nuclear arsenal will cost us $355 billion over the next decade. And because they’re the experts on estimating what things will really cost in Washington, the CBO included $59 billion in expected cost overruns. Apparently we just expect to get robbed by our own defense contractors now and write it into the budget.
As if that weren’t enough, a recent panel of former government and military officials stated that spending on nuclear weapons could hit $1 trillion over the next 30 years. That’s trillion, with a “t.”
Just so we’re clear, we are going to borrow billions of dollars from China to pay defense contractors to overcharge us to dismantle weapons we never used to make room for new weapons we’ll never use to… well, to do what, exactly?
Sure, as long as other states possess nuclear weapons, the United States should possess a core arsenal to deter a potential, though extremely unlikely, nuclear attack. But Kingston Reif, the Director of Nuclear Non-Proliferation at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, raised a good point in a recent column for Real Clear Defense: Our arsenal was built to counter the one in Russia, which is still the only other country with more than 300 nuclear warheads. And while you don’t need to look into Vladimir Putin’s eyes to tell that we ain’t exactly friends these days, the nature of our enmity has changed radically in that, as Reif notes, we aren’t “global ideological rivals” anymore.
No longer a godless horde of Commies — or the Soviet Union, for that matter — Russia is now worried about Islamic terrorism and dependent on the price of oil, just like we are. We only exist as a jealous counterpoint in Russia’s popular thinking as the ones responsible for their current low state.
Putin’s recent incursions into Georgia and Ukraine — both non-NATO countries — were expressions of a yearning for Russia’s former greatness, not aggression towards the United States. This would be like if the U.S. was overcompensating for feelings of inadequacy by invading Toronto because they have a baseball team. Picking on Ukraine makes Putin look desperate for validation; his actions are more tantrum than realpolitik.
And how are we countering this? The Obama administration is speaking softly and imposing big sanctions. Thanks to banking regulations put in place to stop terrorists from moving money, we have the power to systematically shut down Russia’s economy. And with the cooperation of our European allies, that’s exactly what is happening. For the last two months, Russia’s economy has shrunk as the country moves into a recession.
Our economies are far more interconnected than they were in the Cold War. We make more progress with diplomacy, foreign trade, and international economic development — the tools of soft power — than we ever did threatening mutually assured destruction. And our entire budget for the State Department and foreign operations is $49 billion, less than even the expected cost overruns for modernizing our nuclear arsenal.
Our missiles are aimed into the past at a world that has changed, but our bills will extend not just ten years into the future, but as long as the debt stays on our books. It’s high time to ask why we are rearming for a war we’ll never have with an enemy that no longer exists at a cost we can’t afford.
Jason Stanford is a partner with the Truman National Security Project. He is also a national Democratic consultant based in Austin, Texas, and writes regular columns for The Austin American-Statesman and The Quorum Report.
Photo: An unarmed U.S. Air Force LGM-30G Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile launches during an operational test at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., Dec. 17, 2013 (A1C Yvonne Morales/Wikimedia Commons)
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