Kelsey Abkin is a writer, editor, content strategist, reader, photographer, thinker, and storyteller in New York City.
An analysis by the Arms Control Association of U.S. government budget data projects the total cost over the next 30 years of the proposed nuclear modernization and maintenance at between $1.25 trillion and $1.46 trillion. This expenditure is not included in our defense budget of $700 billion, which leads the world in military spending and represents more than the spending of the next seven countries combined –three times what China spends and seven times what Russia spends on defense.
To put this into perspective, this number exceeds the combined total federal spending for education; training, employment, and social services; agriculture; natural resources and the environment; general science, space, and technology; community and regional development (including disaster relief); law enforcement; and energy production and regulation.
With climate change deemed by the Pentagon as an immediate national security threat, healthcare costs rising, and an increasing number of natural disasters, one might think nuclear weapons would lose their place as the top recipient of federal spending. But this is far from the case and there is a reason why.
As long as other countries continue to harbor nuclear weapons, we will do the same. And vise versa. As Donald Trump said at the start of his campaign, “If countries are going to have nukes, we’re going to be at the top of the pack.”
This sentiment followed him into his presidency. The Trump administration just last week considered proposing additional, smaller, more tactical nuclear weapons that would cause less damage than traditional thermonuclear bombs. However, these mini-nukes are not some new, profound proposal. We have had nuclear weapons capable of being dialed down to the power of “mini nukes” since the 80’s. The 15-kiloton bomb dropped on Hiroshima would now be classified as a “mini-nuke” yet its destruction was monumental. Adding more, smaller nukes is an unnecessary, potentially dangerous addition. Proponents of the proposal claim these “mini-nukes” would give military commanders more options; critics, however, contend that it will also make the use of atomic arms more likely. Christine Parthemore, International Affairs Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, says, “Our investments should be careful lowering our threshold of use.” Further, the proposed addition will only add trouble to the already fraught international conversation opposing nuclear weapons.
As former Secretary of State George Shultz so eloquently put it, “proliferation begets proliferation.” One state’s nuclear acquisitions only drive its adversaries to follow suit. The reality is adding to our nuclear arsenal will only force our international opponents to defensively order a mad dash for the bomb.
In today’s political arena, as Russia remains volatile and North Korea’s threat grows, is funding the expansion of our nuclear arsenal in the country’s best interest or just Trump’s latest boastful display of American power?
Having a nuclear arsenal is supposed to ensure the raw principle behind nuclear deterrence: You won’t destroy us because we can destroy you. As Andrew Weber, Former Assistant Secretary of Defense & former Director of the Nuclear Weapons Council, says, “The sole purpose of having a nuclear arsenal is to deter an attack on the United States of America.”
This cold war era mindset relies on the relationship between acting and reacting. With the recognition that retaliation is likely, if not guaranteed, nuclear weapons are supposed to restrain the possibility of action on behalf of nuclear leaders. They are supposed to make them cautious, regardless of which states we are talking about or how many weapons they might possess.
According to a 2017 report by the Arms Control Association, The United States currently maintains an arsenal of about 1,650 strategic nuclear warheads deployed on Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs), Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBMs), and Strategic Bombers and some 180 tactical nuclear weapons at bomber bases in five European countries.
The ICBM is arguably the most controversial piece of America’s nuclear triad, yet in August, the Air Force announced major new contracts for a revamp of the American nuclear force: $1.8 billion for initial development of a highly stealthy nuclear cruise missile, and nearly $700 million to begin replacing the 40-year-old Minuteman missiles in silos across the United States.
This plan was born from the Obama administration but enthusiastically hightailed by Trump. Obama’s reasoning was that as our weapons became increasingly safe, their numbers could be reduced.
However, Trump’s reasoning has proven to be different. His threat that North Korea will be met with “fury and fire” combined with his proposals of mini-nukes only propel the notion that he is not following past leaders in enforcing a no first strike policy.
The danger of revamping this shaky leg of the nuclear triad is in part due to Trump’s demonstrated impulsiveness. As Andrew Weber explains, “There is a 2-3 minute threat of the land-based missiles and it is impossible for the target to determine whether the weapon has a nuclear or conventional tip.” An impulsive president with nuclear codes capable of starting a nuclear war in 2-3 minutes using a weapon that must fly over Russia and has the possibility of mistaken identity, is essentially a recipe for disaster.
Christine Parthemore says the “ICBM is the weakest link” and we should begin reform by eliminating it. Yet, instead the current administration is both modernizing and adding to this arsenal, a move that will most likely draw other countries to do the same and commit the United States to keeping the most vulnerable branch of its “nuclear triad.”
The 2017 report by the Arm Control Association broke down the proposed spending for Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBMs) and found the total reached over $128 billion. The costly program, titled Colombia Class, includes 12 new boats for the Navy, and has a projected life-cycle cost of $282 billion. In comparison, free public education in America would cost a mere $62.6 billion dollars.
The third and final upgrade is a modernization of the current B-2 Bomber costing 9.5 billion. However, in accordance with Obama’s efforts to decrease the US’s quantity of weapons, known as START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty), the Pentagon announced it would retain 42 deployed and 4 non-deployed nuclear capable B-52 bombers. The remainder of the B-52 bombers would be converted to carry only conventional weapons.
In these last few weeks, as tensions rise to an unprecedented high with North Korea, it may seem like the wrong time to discuss the reduction and soon eradication of ICBM’s. However, Joseph Cirincione, President of the Ploughshares Fund, says that how America chooses to go forward at this moment in time will have utmost consequences to the entire international political arena and its potential for nuclear war.
In the past weeks North Korea launched 22 missiles in 15 tests and sought to assure its dominance and Trump, in his expected fashion, took to Twitter to boast American power, a move that North Korean leaders took to mean war. With the threat of a nuclear war with North Korea actualizing, America should be discussing the potential of reigning in North Korea by moving away from nuclear weapons. As it is, Trump’s egotistical rhetoric falls flat when up against Kim Jong-un, a ruthless tyrant willing to gamble with the lives of millions of his citizens. If the US were to strike first, there would no doubt be retaliation. Despite having spent hundreds of billions on strategic missile defenses, most analysts have little confidence that the US can destroy any intercontinental missiles launched against them once they get off the ground. After the most recent failed interceptor test Philip E. Coyle III, who previously ran the Pentagon’s weapons-testing program, stated that the system “is something the U.S. military, and the American people, cannot depend upon.” This is after spending $8 billion a year for the past forty years.
Ultimately, there is no military option that would not entail a mind-bogging gamble with the lives of millions of Americans, Japanese and especially South Koreans.
Our current policy of pugnacious rhetoric does little to affect Kim Jong-un. We have been tightening sanctions on North Korea for over a decade, and their nuclear program has only accelerated. A first-strike by America means the endangerment of millions. What this leaves is diplomacy. Negotiating with North Korea will not be easy but it is possible. The Clinton administration helped negotiate the important 1994 Agreed Framework, under which North Korea effectively froze its major nuclear programs.
Creating a deal with Iran through diplomatic relations appeared unreasonable until it happened.
Sanctions should remain in place but they must be paired with some diplomatic engagement. We must be open to offering North Korea things that they want: security guarantees, some form of international political recognition, and economic benefits in exchange for a freeze on their nuclear and missile programs. We must do all this while strengthening our relationship with South Korea and Japan and maintaining a strong foothold enclosing North Korea. None of this will be possible without the trust of the international community, a trust that is shaken with Trump’s threat of ripping up Obama’s 2015 Iran Deal.
We must also remember that China would rather see a nuclear North Korea than a larger United States presence in Asia. As of now, China facilitates about 90 percent of North Korea’s trade and provides its oil. And it is China that has opposed a stricter U.N. embargo for fear of a collapsed regime and a potential unified Korea allied with the United States. It is important now more than ever to isolate North Korea with the help of our allies.
Now is not the time to build up our nuclear arsenal and respond to threats with military action, especially as we face an already threatened North Korea. It is crucial now more than ever not to proliferate the use of nuclear weapons. The goal is to deter and when it comes to deterrence, more is not better, especially when it is so incredibly expensive.
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“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.”
It has been over six decades since Dwight D. Eisenhower uttered these words in a broadcast announcement from the Statler Hotel in Washington D.C. And while circumstances in America have undoubtedly changed, his words remain accurate.
Since the late 19th century, the United States has acted as the world’s policeman, the one that keeps order and makes sure everyone else sticks to the rules. Occupying this role evidently has had repercussions, both good and bad. Yet, it seems as of late the bad outweighs the good. The U.S.’s mission to police the world has led to massive overspending abroad and subsequently growing negligence at home. In an attempt to address this problem, the U.S. continues to do what it does best—throw money at it.
On September 18th, as Democrats fell in line with Republicans to fund the $692 billion National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), Congress proved they would continue to fund a system that does little to protect the American people. The act passed with a sweeping 89-8 vote—with only five Democrats voting against the act. The figure is a significant $80 billion annual increase from last year and a $28.5 billion more than President Trump asked for. It does not include the $12.9 billion of continued investment in nuclear security or $186 billion for the Veterans Administration Budget. Nor does it include the interest the United States has accumulated by putting their wars on a credit card. The total cost of military-related expenditures is over a trillion dollars and over 70% of all federal discretionary spending.
Speaking at Westminster College just three days after the NDAA passed, Senator Bernie Sanders, one of just five Democrats who voted against the bill, dismantled the case that progressives don’t have big ideas on foreign policy and set forth a template for future democratic positions on national security.
Standing where Eisenhower delivered his famous “Cross of Iron” speech nearly 70 years ago, Sanders rightly recognized the irony between a colossal Pentagon budget and Republican attempts to take health care away from tens of millions of Americans in the name of fiscal responsibility. He made clear that “we cannot convincingly promote democracy abroad if we do not live it vigorously here at home” and in a reliable Sanders-like fashion demanded we address our growing domestic issues.
He is right to wonder how asking a fraction of the price for domestic issues such as health care and education funding is criticized as a nonstarter, yet when it comes to our military, there is no number too high.
Earlier this year, Trump submitted a budget proposal in which he cut social spending dramatically to fund a $54 billion increase in defense spending. Democrats criticized it as a nonstarter. However, at September’s NDAA hearing, 41 Democrats raised little to no concern about this military spending—even at the cost of social spending.
Currently, the U.S. is $20.4 trillion in debt and we spend almost as much as the rest of the world combined on defense. While we are authorizing $692 billion, China, our closest follower is spending $102 billion while Russia spends $59 billion. The argument for America’s excessive defense spending is synonymous with the argument that America is and must remain the strongest military on the planet. However, the cost necessary to maintain American power and protect our troops is small in comparison to the amount we spend, primarily because most of the defense budget does not directly impact our military standing or the safety of our troops.
First, there is fraud. A report prepared for Bernie Sanders by the Department of Defense showed that hundreds of defense contractors that defrauded the U.S. military received more than $1.1 trillion in Pentagon contracts during the past decade. Yes, that’s trillion with a “T.” For example, Northrop Grumman paid $62 million in 2005 to settle charges that it “engaged in a fraud scheme by routinely submitting false contract proposals,” and “concealed basic problems in its handling of inventory, scrap and attrition.”
Second, there is waste. As an example, July 2013, the Pentagon decided to build a 64,000 square foot command headquarters in Afghanistan for the U.S. military that is and will remain unoccupied. The project is estimated to have cost the Pentagon $34 million. We then supplied $771 million worth of aircraft for Afghan use. However, Afghanistan obtains only one-quarter of the trained personnel necessary to use them and in 2015, the Pentagon suppressed a study that reported $125 billion in waste.
Third, whether it is paying $8,000 for a $500 helicopter part, $425 million in wrongful travel reimbursements or the illustrative $640 toilet seat, the Pentagon has a history of overpaying. According to the Federal Procurement Data System’s top 100 contractors report for 2016, the CEO’s of the top five Pentagon contractors—Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Raytheon, General Dynamics, and Northrop Grumman—paid themselves a cumulative $96 million in 2016, more than a fair cut.
Conveniently enough, the Department of Defense can’t tell us how much equipment it has purchased, or how often it has been overcharged, or even how many contractors it employs. The Pentagon can only approximate that they employ more than 600,000 private contractors, yet these costs account for the majority of their tax spending dollars. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has announced they cannot even audit the Pentagon. To illuminate the utter disorder of the United States military finances, in 2015 in a rush to close its books, the army made $6.5 trillion in wrongful adjustments to accounting entries. A law in effect since 1992 requires annual audits of all federal agencies—and of all the federal agencies, the Pentagon alone has never complied. The NDAA is asking the American public to pay for huge expenditures that the Pentagon cannot even document.
What we do know of this year’s bill offers little in the way of consoling the American public that the money will be well spent. The defense authorization bill contains a number of provisions that increase the risk of cost overruns for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program and undermine the ability of Pentagon officials and Congress to assess the combat suitability of new weapon systems in the future. Both the House and Senate versions of the National Defense Authorization Act authorizes a block purchase of 440 F-35s through a procurement process called “Economic Order Quantity,” even though the planes are still being developed and the testing necessary to prove they are operationally effective won’t be completed for years. Until that testing is done, all the American people will get for their money is a pile of parts for an unproven prototype, a $1.4 trillion pile of uncertainty. A recent test of six of the new, stealthy fighters revealed that only one of them was capable of a rapid, ready alert launch. The F-35 program has come to symbolize all that’s wrong with American defense spending: a bloated budget, greedy manufacturers, and an impenetrable Pentagon culture that cannot adequately track its own spending.
To add concern, the NDAA requested $8.5 billion for the Missile Defense Agency, a $630 million boost above what Trump requested. It would add up to 28 ground-based interceptors as well as put $28 million into developing space-based missile sensors. Despite the fact that up to today the U.S. has spent nearly $320 billion, most analysts have little confidence that the U.S. can destroy any intercontinental missiles launched against them once they get off the ground. After the most recent failed interceptor test Philip E. Coyle III, who previously ran the Pentagon’s weapons-testing program, stated that the system “is something the U.S. military, and the American people, cannot depend upon.” Why add more money to an expensive system that has been compared to hitting a bullet with a bullet, that doesn’t work after over 20 years of trying?
Senate Republicans are concurrently proposing to cut billions from Medicare and $1 trillion from Medicaid, in addition to big federal spending cuts that would likely decimate federal housing and education programs.
There exists a massive blind spot as senators fight tooth and nail to ensure no one is abusing food stamps, while dropping trillions on an unreliable, unaccountable defense strategy.
In the 2016 presidential campaign, Senator Bernie Sanders pledged to make tuition free at public colleges and universities. This proposal was met with dismissal as though the notion belonged solely in Arcadia. The proposed plan was estimated to cost the federal government a mere $47 billion.
More recently, Sanders continued his Medicare-for-All plea with a health care system estimated to cost $1.4 trillion a year. This was treated as unrealistic although our current private insurance-based health care system will cost $3.35 trillion this year.
If America were to spend even double as much as China, four times as much as Russia on defense spending, we could potentially create an America where young people can attend college with little to no out of pocket cost and the millions of people with health issues can get the help they need without the financial burden.
Why is it that only six out of 47 Democratic senators can see the potential of cutting defense spending and instead funding domestic programs?
The notion of a healthy and educated America should not be the stuff of dreamers when it could be a tangible reality. America should not spend more on defense. America should spend smarter on defense and more on pressing domestic issues. And Democratic senators should realign their vote to match their supposed politics.
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