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Chuck Hagel’s nuclear exemption via Los Angeles Times

One category of military spending largely escaped the ax in the Defense secretary’s budget: nuclear weapons.

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But one category of military spending largely escaped the budget ax: nuclear weapons.

The United States has about 1,600 long-range nuclear weapons on active duty — more than any other country, including Vladimir Putin‘s Russia. Under the 2010 New START treaty, the United States and Russia agreed to reduce their arsenals to no more than 1,550 warheads apiece by 2018. The Russians are already below the treaty ceiling after taking missiles out of service as part of a modernization program. But the U.S. doesn’t appear to be in any hurry.

Maintaining and modernizing our giant arsenal, which, happily, seems increasingly unlikely to ever be used, is expensive. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that U.S. nuclear forces will cost $355 billion over the next 10 years. About $89 billion of that will go to replacing aging missiles, submarines and bombers, and those costs will grow much larger after 2023, the CBO warned in a recent report.

Worst of all, much of that spending is unnecessary. Almost every expert on nuclear weapons agrees that the United States has a far larger nuclear force than it needs to deter attacks.

Last year, for example, when President Obama proposed reducing U.S. and Russian nuclear forces by about one-third to 1,100 warheads each, the Joint Chiefs of Staff embraced the idea. A year earlier, an independent panel convened by Global Zero, a disarmament group, concluded that 450 deployed warheads would be enough; one of its members was a retired senator named Chuck Hagel.

But since then, Hagel has been virtually mute about reducing nuclear arms. “If there was ever a time to start resetting this institution and restructuring … it’s now,” he said Tuesday as he pitched his budget to a roomful of defense experts. But when I asked him whether he still harbored the goal of shrinking the nuclear force, he ducked the question, saying his only goal was to leave the military stronger than he found it.

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Take nuclear submarines. Sometime after 2020, the Pentagon plans to replace all 12 of its subs that carry nuclear weapons at a cost that will probably exceed $6 billion a boat. But Pifer and others suggest we would be just as safe with eight or nine nuclear missile submarines.

Similar savings are available in the planned replacements for today’s B-2 and B-52 bombers and the Minuteman III missiles in the silos of the High Plains.

It might even be possible to close one of the country’s three nuclear missile bases, although closing any military base is politically thorny.

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