Dr. Wittner is Professor of History emeritus at the State University of New York/Albany. His latest book is Confronting the Bomb: A Short History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement (Stanford University Press).]
In the midst of the current stampede to slash federal spending, Congress might want to take a look at two unnecessary (and dangerous) “national security” programs that, if cut, would save the United States over a quarter of a trillion dollars over the next decade.
The first of these is the Obama administration’s plan to spend at least $185 billion in the next ten years to “modernize” the U.S. government’s nuclear weapons arsenal. At present, the U.S. government possesses approximately 8,500 nuclear warheads, and it is hard to imagine that this country would be safer from attack if it built more nuclear weapons or “improved” those it already possesses. Indeed, President Barack Obama has declared—both on the 2008 campaign trail and as president—that he is committed to building a world without nuclear weapons. This seems like a perfectly sensible position—one favored by most nations and, as polls show, most people (including most people in the United States). Therefore, the administration should be working on securing further disarmament agreements—not on upgrading the U.S. nuclear arsenal in preparation for future nuclear confrontations and nuclear wars.
In late June of this year, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, wrote: “It is deeply troubling that the U.S. has allocated $185 billion to augment its nuclear stockpile over the next decade, on top of the ordinary annual nuclear-weapons budget of more than $50 billion.” Not only has the International Court of Justice affirmed that nations “are legally obliged to negotiate in good faith for the complete elimination of their nuclear forces,” but “every dollar invested in bolstering a country’s nuclear arsenal is a diversion of resources from its schools, hospitals, and other social services, and a theft from the millions around the globe who go hungry or are denied access to basic medicines.” He concluded: “Instead of investing in weapons of mass annihilation, governments must allocate resources towards meeting human needs.”
Another project worth eliminating is the national missile defense program. Thanks to recent congressional generosity, this Reagan-era carryover, once derided by U.S. Senator Edward Kennedy as “Star Wars,” is currently slated for an increase in federal spending, which will provide it with $8.6 billion in fiscal 2012.
The vast and expensive missile defense program—costing about $150 billion since its inception—has thus far produced remarkably meager results. Indeed, no one knows whether it will work. As an investigative article in Bloomberg News recently reported: “It has never been tested under conditions simulating a real attack by an intercontinental ballistic missile deploying sophisticated decoys and countermeasures. The system has flunked 7 of 15 more limited trials, yet remains exempted from normal Pentagon oversight.”
Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, reported that his committee was “deeply concerned” about the test failures of the nation’s missile defense program. He also implied that, given the disappearance of the Soviet Union, the United States might not need such a system to deter its potential enemies, which have a far inferior missile capability. “The threat we have now is either a distant threat or is not a realistic threat,” he remarked.
Why, then, do other nations—for example, Russia—fiercely object to the deployment of a U.S. missile defense system near their borders? Perhaps they fear that, somehow, U.S. scientists and engineers will finally figure out how to build a system, often likened to hitting a bullet with a bullet, that makes the United States invulnerable while they are left vulnerable. Or perhaps they think that, one day, some U.S. government officials might believe that the United States actually is invulnerable and launch a first strike against their own nations. In any case, their favorite solution to the problem posed by U.S. national missile defense—building more nuclear-tipped missiles of their own—significantly undermines the security of the United States.
Projecting the current annual cost of this program over the next decade, the United States would save $86 billion by eliminating it.
Thus, by scrapping plans for nuclear weapons “modernization” and for national missile defense—programs that are both useless and provocative—the United States would save $271 billion (well over a quarter of a trillion dollars) in the next ten years. Whether used to balance the budget or to fund programs for jobs, healthcare, education, and the environment, this money would go a long way toward resolving some of the nation’s current problems.