Last week’s House Armed Services Committee hearing on sequestration broke down into partisan congestion, but it was not without one small sign that strategic thinking may still be alive in Congress.
That glimmer of hope was Rep. Robert Andrews’ call for rightsizing the defense budget in a “rational and intelligent” way. Among the congressman’s recommendations: “I think that a nuclear arsenal that can blow up the world 24 times is quite sufficient and could be modernized and reduced in cost.”
Rep. Andrews is in good company. U.S. officials from former STRATCOM commanders General James Cartwright and General Eugene Habiger to former Secretary of State Colin Powell agree that the maintaining the oversized U.S. arsenal at the expense of more important defense priorities is a bad strategy.
Air Force Chief of Staff General Norton Schwartz is another member of the growing consensus of national leaders calling for a nuclear arsenal more suited to today’s security threats. In a recent interview with the Boston Globe, General Schwartz said, “We have more backup systems in terms of weapons systems than we actually have deployed.”
“Some of that is a reasonable hedge [but] there is probably room for reductions,’ he added.
General Schwartz was referring to the U.S. nuclear hedge – the 2,800 nuclear warheads kept in reserve, on top of the 2,150 currently deployed. Counting the 3,000 warheads awaiting dismantlement, the U.S. stockpile numbers 8,000 nuclear weapons.
Maintaining the nuclear enterprise comes at a high price. The U.S. spends about $30 billion on nuclear weapons each year, according to a Stimson Center analysis. That $30 billion includes billions of dollars for nuclear programs that we don’t need, at a time when defense programs that we do need are facing budget cuts.
The generals are on board with rightsizing the nuclear arsenal; some policymakers and pundits lag behind, clinging to the old nuclear order.
But Congress may be starting to realize that maintaining an arsenal of 8,000 weapons decades after the Cold War has ended doesn’t make sense.
Rep. Andrews isn’t the only member of Congress to call for eliminating unnecessary nuclear spending. Last summer Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) proposed a deficit reduction plan that includes nearly $80 billion in nuclear cuts over the next ten years.
Senator Carl Levin, chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee also supports trimming the fat from the nuclear budget. “The Cold War is over….there’s a way over-reliance and cost that goes into our nuclear weapon system,” he said earlier this year, adding “We have way more than are needed to carry out their mission.”
Efforts to cut excess nuclear spending have been been blocked by congressional defenders of the Cold War arsenal. But the momentum for smart reductions is growing.
To avert budget sequester – the automatic, across-the-board budget cuts that threaten all areas of defense spending – Congress is looking to make strategic cuts to unnecessary programs. Military leaders and the American public have the answer to their budget dilemma: eliminating unnecessary nuclear programs will save billions of dollars, relieving the pressure on more important defense programs.