By William Hartung
When the Biden administration releases the details of its proposed budget Friday, one thing will be clear. At over $750 billion for spending on the Pentagon and related work like nuclear warhead development at the Department of Energy, the budget will be far in excess of what’s needed to defend the United States and its allies, especially at a time when the most urgent challenges we face, from pandemics to climate change, are not military in nature.
It bears repeating just how high current Pentagon spending levels are by historical standards – far higher than at the peaks of the Korean or Vietnam wars or the Reagan buildup of the 1980s; over three times what China spends; and over ten times what Russia spends. And that’s not even counting expenditures by U.S. allies. There is ample room to reduce the department’s budget while making the country safer.
One area of particular concern is the Pentagon’s plan to build a new generation of nuclear-armed bombers, missiles, and submarines, along with nuclear warheads. Just this week the Congressional Budget Office put the price tag for this plan at $634 billion over the next ten years, a 28% increase over the last time it made such an estimate. While some of the increase is a result of ramping up production on key systems, much of it is not – tens of billions of dollars of the increase stem from expected cost overruns, a near certainty in weapons programs of this size and scope. This is far too high a price to pay for weapons that are both dangerous and unnecessary.
This risk is completely unnecessary. As the organization Global Zero has demonstrated in its alternative nuclear posture review, a force comprised of ballistic missile submarines and nuclear-armed bombers would be more than sufficient to deter any nation from attacking the United States, with ample firepower in reserve. Not only is a new ICBM not needed, it will make America and the world less safe.
A second element of the Pentagon’s nuclear modernization plan that cries out to be cancelled is the nuclear-armed sea-launched cruise missile, a new nuclear weapon proposed during the Trump years. Not only is the system redundant given all the other ways the U.S. has to deliver nuclear weapons, but, like the new ICBM, it could increase the risk of an accidental nuclear conflict, as Kingston Reif and Monica Montgomery have explained:
“Mixing conventional and nuclear cruise missiles would . . . decrease the value of the conventional missiles – as any launch of a conventional missile would inherently send a nuclear signal – and increase the potential for unintended nuclear use in a conflict with a nuclear-armed adversary – since the adversary would have no way of knowing if the missile was nuclear or conventional.”