Obama Wants to Spend a Trillion Dollars on New Generation of Nuclear Weapons


News organizations love anniversary stories and if for some reason you haven’t heard, it’s the 70th anniversary of when the U.S. dropped two atomic bombs on Japan. The first exploded over Hiroshima on Aug. 6 and the second over Nagasaki on Aug. 9.

Not surprisingly, there’s been a proliferation of print and broadcast stories on the making of the bomb, the politics of the bomb, the dropping of the bomb, the survivors of the bomb—you name it. The Washington Post even ran a story about a 390-year-old Japanese white pine now in the U.S. National Arboretum that survived the Hiroshima blast.

Despite all this coverage, however, I didn’t notice any stories that bothered to mention the fact that the Obama administration wants the U.S. government to spend as much as $1 trillion over the next three decades on a new generation of nuclear warheads, bombers, submarines and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).

Isn’t it time, as nutritionist Susan Powter used to say, to stop the insanity?

U.S. Military Budget Higher than Cold War Average

Having grown up during the Cold War, nuclear bombs are all too familiar. In October 1962, during the Cuban missile crisis, my elementary school conducted regular drills, lining up all the boys and girls and leading us single file to the building’s basement fallout shelter. In retrospect, it was a moderately better option than cowering under our desks. Years later, in the mid-1980s, I was the editor of Nuclear Times, a bimonthly magazine that covered what turned out to be the end of the Cold War. When Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev waved the white flag at the United Nations (UN) in 1988, there was great excitement about what was then called the “peace dividend.” No more Cold War, no more Cold War defense spending. Perhaps the U.S. government could finally use the billions it was lavishing on the military, the nuclear weapons complex and defense contractors for other, more socially useful, ends.

But the peace dividend never happened. At $610 billion, the annual U.S. military budget today is actually higher than it was on average during the Cold War and is more than the combined military budgets of the next seven countries: China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, India and our longtime NATO allies France, Germany and the United Kingdom (UK). It eats up more than half of the U.S. annual discretionary budget.

To be sure, thanks to a series of treaties, both the U.S. and Russia have cut their respective nuclear arsenals considerably since the end of the Cold War. In 1988, the Soviets had 37,000 nuclear weapons and the U.S. had 23,000. Today, Russia has an estimated stockpile of 4,500 warheads, of which 1,800 strategic warheads are deployed on missiles and at bomber bases. The U.S., meanwhile, has an estimated stockpile of 4,800 warheads. Approximately 2,100 of them are deployed on ballistic missiles or at bomber bases. That’s a lot less than 30 years ago, but keep in mind that just one of those warheads is five to 40 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Nagasaki, which exploded with a force of 20,000 tons of TNT.

The 3+2 Warhead Plan Doesn’t Add Up

In April 2009—just a few months after taking office—President Obama gave a widely acclaimed speech in Prague that focused largely on the threat posed by nuclear weapons. “The existence of thousands of nuclear weapons is the most dangerous legacy of the Cold War,” he said. “And as the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon, the U.S. has a moral responsibility to act. We cannot succeed in this endeavor alone, but we can lead it, we can start it.” He then cited some of the “concrete steps” the U.S. would take “toward a world without nuclear weapons.”

Later that year, Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, largely because of that speech. And in April 2010, he was back in Prague to follow through with one of his promised concrete steps: to sign a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia, further cutting both countries arsenals and reinstituting a strict verification system that the Bush administration had dropped.

Since then, however, the Obama administration has apparently forgotten that Obama called for putting an “end to Cold War thinking” during that Prague speech. Remarkably, the administration is proposing that the U.S. government spend $1 trillion over the next 30 years to refurbish or replace the current nuclear arsenal.

Approximately $60 billion is slated to replace existing nuclear weapons with a suite of new warheads, a task that would be handled by the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), a semi-autonomous agency within the Department of Energy. The NNSA plan specifically calls for building new nuclear material production facilities and consolidating the current stockpile of seven types of warheads into five. The arsenal of tomorrow would consist of three warheads deployed on Air Force and Navy long-range missiles and two types of air-delivered weapons deployed on cruise missiles and bombers.

The so-called “3+2” plan, however, violates the spirit if not the letter of the Obama administration’s pledge to not develop new nuclear weapons. Besides that, it’s fiscally irresponsible and technologically problematic, according to a 2013 Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) report.

“The U.S. needs to extend the life of its nuclear arsenal, but it should refurbish its existing weapons instead of spending tens of billions of dollars to build new ones,” said report co-author Lisbeth Gronlund, co-director of UCS’s Global Security Program.

The NNSA plan’s major technical drawback, she added, is that it could be difficult for the agency to certify that its new warheads are safe, secure and reliable without nuclear explosive testing. The U.S., which conducted its last explosive test in 1992, has signed but not ratified the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty prohibiting them.

“The NNSA can vouch for the safety and reliability of currently deployed or refurbished warheads,” she said, “but the same level of confidence may not be possible if the agency makes substantial modifications.”

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