The Profligate Nuclear Pentagon

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American taxpayers don’t get their money’s worth from their ever-growing annual investment in the Pentagon. It’s a bottomless pit that makes a hydrofracked well look like a pothole. Most taxpayers would be happy to spend considerably less. The massive size, baroque nature and opaque character of the ‘defense’ budget make picking and choosing programs to cut or retain very difficult for most of us, including members of Congress charged with its analysis and approval. Here’s a tip: if the Department of Defense itself does not know how much money it spends on something, it’s definitely too much.

Two cases spring immediately to mind: the war in Afghanistan and nuclear weapons. The first is mildly outrageous given the twelve years available to figure it out. The second is unconscionable as we near the eighth decade of the Nuclear Age. Congress does not require nuclear weapons spending to be collected in a single budget document or account. And, believe it or not, there is no ‘industry standard,’ no consensus on the definition of what constitutes spending on nuclear weapons. Despite the many thousands of accountants, bookkeepers, and program analysts employed by DoD, the armed services, and the Department of Energy, and despite specific, repeated recommendations by the Government Accountability Office, the best we can do is estimate.

Available estimates range widely. The Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS) uses a narrow definition of what counts as weapons spending to arrive at the figure of about $18 billion per year (excluding, for example, cleanup costs at places like Hanford, WA and West Valley, NY). CNS projects massive increases in spending should the US “modernize” its aging weapons as currently planned by President Obama. The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace takes an expansive view of what constitutes nuclear weapons expenditures leading it to claim approximately $52 billion per year.

Eighteen billion dollars per year is more than twice what the US spends on the Environmental Protection Agency. Fifty-two billion dollars is close to one hundred times what the US spends annually on the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. At least as shocking is the fact that if one splits the difference between these estimates, the US spends more inflation-adjusted dollars today on nuclear weapons than it did during the average Cold War year.

Expenditures for environmental protection and worker safety are widely seen as generating outsize returns on investment. The same cannot be said for nuclear weapons. Imagine how many more explosive fertilizer depots or toxic chicken processing plants OSHA might inspect were it empowered by a budget sufficient to the task. Keep dreaming: President Obama never promised a future free from easily avoidable pollution or reckless corporate decisions. He did, however, promise a future of reduced danger from nuclear weapons.

In April 2009, just two short months after taking office, Barak Obama (whose senior thesis at Columbia concerned the arms race and the Nuclear Freeze Movement) chose Prague for his first major foreign policy address. The speech touched on many topics, but is remembered for these lines:

So today, I state clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons. I’m not naive. This goal will not be reached quickly — perhaps not in my lifetime. It will take patience and persistence. But now we, too, must ignore the voices who tell us that the world cannot change. We have to insist, “Yes, we can.”

The 2010 New START Treaty with Russia and the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) were the highpoints of Obama’s commitment. The NPR pledged not to “support new military missions or provide for new military capabilities” for US nuclear weapons. Since then, the administration failed to convince the Senate to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and failed to convince the Pakistanis to stop obstructing UN-sponsored negotiations to end fissile material manufacturing for new nuclear arms (two other goals cited in Prague).

Should one still worship at the church of nuclear deterrence, it’s reasonable to argue that the US should hold onto a handful of long-range missiles, subs or bombers to insure against nuclear aggression—the “perhaps not in my lifetime” part. That argument is unreasonable—believer or not—for US non-strategic nuclear weapons deployed in Europe. And it’s plain listening to “the voices who tell us that the world cannot change” to promote or defend the B61-12 Life Extension Program.

The United States first developed non-strategic nuclear weapons for deployment to NATO Europe (formerly called tactical, battlefield or short-range nuclear forces) for two reasons. First, it saw the devices as essential to stop the feared Soviet armored assault across the North German Plain should push come to World War III. And, second, because it could (the 1950s were the era of nuclear everything, cars, planes, boats, etc.).

Strategists theorized battlefield weapons as a low rung on the ‘ladder of escalation’ that stretched from infantrymen to ICBMs. The mini-Bombs took amazingly diverse form and shape: artillery shells, landmines, depth charges, aerial bombs, anti-aircraft missiles. What’s perhaps more amazing, twenty years after the end of the Cold War, is that one variety—the B61 aerial bomb delivered by jet fighter aircraft—lives on even today. Approximately 200 B61s remain ready for use by F-16s on US airbases in Belgium, Germany, Italy, Turkey and the Netherlands.

Obama’s B61 Life Extension Program proposes to spend over $11 billion over several years to keep the variable-yield bombs “operational” through 2025 (nuclear weapons have limited shelf lives). This includes a billion dollars to add new tail fins in order to raise the intelligence of the things, to convert them from ‘dumb bombs’ subject solely to gravity to ‘smart bombs’ that can be steered to their targets. The new tail fins also permit B61s to be carried by the F-35 stealth fighter, perhaps the single greatest Pentagon boondoggle of all time. Not only does the proposed modernization violate the promise of the 2010 NPR to avoid new capabilities, it lowers the ‘nuclear threshold’ by making the bombs more ‘usable.’ This is because the F-35 can (hypothetically) get closer to its target prior to detection and attempted interdiction, reducing the required yield of the more precise bomb, reducing the radioactive fallout of the explosion, and reducing the consequences of its use.

Why in the world do the US and NATO need a refurbished nuclear bomb first imagined by weapons designers at Los Alamos shortly after the Cuban Missile Crisis? They don’t, even by both parties own reckoning. There is no conceivable military use for the things today. NATO wrestled with its mission, its very reason for being, following the collapse of the Soviet threat in the early nineties. Rather than fold the tent, throw a party, and call it an era—as the peace movements of its member-states suggested—NATO expanded eastward, making new members of its former foes. The US ignored (often gleefully) the howling protests of successive Russian leaders who claimed NATO expansion violated an agreement between Boris Yeltsin and George H.W. Bush to keep the alliance where it was.

NATO is today little more than a US expeditionary force—it faces no credible conventional military threat to its own territory. Bill Clinton dragged NATO into its first-ever combat in the former Yugoslavia. The US enlisted NATO’s continuing assistance for the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) following the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan. George W. Bush convinced NATO powers Britain and France to help invade and occupy Iraq. NATO played the lead role in bringing down Col. Gaddafi.

NATO intentionally missed abundant opportunities for denuclearization and demilitarization along the way. The INF Treaty—the world’s first nuclear disarmament agreement—ought to have led in later years to the complete removal of all nuclear weapons from Europe. Gorbachev and Western peace researchers’ innovative ideas about “defense sufficiency” and “non-provocative defense” ought to have led to ever-deeper cuts in military forces to generate a large ongoing peace dividend.

Instead, to justify its existence and its sixty-five year burden on taxpayers, NATO and its senior American partner flirt with friendly non-member states like Israel in “partnerships for peace.” They maintain F-16s in the skies over the Baltic States at Russia’s doorstep. They hem and haw over ballistic missile defense programs (aimed at Iran) that cause considerable Russian concern. They taunt the Russians with the prospect of Ukrainian and Georgian membership in NATO. And they justify Russian nuclear modernization programs—rather than negotiate away the need for them—with idiotic programs like B61 upgrades.

It’s worth spending taxpayer’s hard earned money on a handful of nuclear weapons-related programs. Non-proliferation activities to avoid the further spread of nuclear weapons (including removing other countries bomb-making stuff, and the conversion of nuclear power reactors to run on low-enriched uranium) are one priority. The funds for non-proliferation are at direct risk from the costs of the B61 Life Extension Program. Remediation of the enormous radiological mess left behind from decades of weapons manufacture is another priority. New and refurbished nuclear weapons, however, ought not get another dime.

The Obama administration’s plans for new and overhauled nuclear weapons are so obviously contrary to logic, presidential promises, and fiscal responsibility that they even drew the recent attention of California Senator Diane Feinstein: “To me, it’s a total backing away from a major commitment [the President’s Prague speech]; people say one thing, and do another.” Feinstein, of course, is unwilling to force the President’s hand through appropriations legislation. Fortunately, Massachusetts Congressman Edward Markey is bolder. His H.R. 1506 Smarter Approaches to Nuclear Expenditures Act (SANE) would do a host of sensible and overdue things, including kill the B61 Life Extension Program. Urge your Representative to co-sponsor it.

Steve Breyman was 2011-12 William C. Foster Visiting Scholar Fellow in the Euro-Atlantic Security Affairs Office of the Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance at the US Department of State. He is author of Why Movements Matter: The West German Peace Movement and US Arms Control Policy. Reach him at

Author: Steve Breyman

Steve Breyman will teach "War in Afghanistan" at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute fall semester. Breyman is a veteran of the U.S. Army.