Introduction: Trump and Nuclear Weapons — Rhetoric Versus Reality
In an interview with Reuters conducted a month after he took office, Donald Trump asserted that the U.S. had “fallen behind on nuclear capability” and that he wanted the United States to be at the “top of the pack” on nuclear weapons once again.
As usual, Trump had not done his homework before speaking out on a crucial, life-and-death question. The United States is already at the “top of the pack” in nuclear capacity, with nearly 6,800 nuclear warheads, including 4,000 in the active stockpile. That’s a huge number when you consider that independent experts have determined that 300 or so nuclear weapons are a sufficient number to deter any nation from attacking the United States with a nuclear weapon. We have thirteen times that in our active stockpile, and more than five times that amount deployed and ready to fire at any given moment.
So the United States is already at the “top of the pack” in nuclear weapons — so high, in fact, that our huge arsenal is more likely to spur a nuclear arms race than it is to protect us from a nuclear war.
In the same Reuters interview, Trump described the New START nuclear arms reduction treaty as “just another bad deal the country made,” comparing it to the multilateral agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear program, which Trump has repeatedly disparaged despite the fact that he has shown no indication that he knows what the agreement entails.
This knee-jerk opposition to any agreement that Trump himself has not negotiated is dangerously short-sighted. New START cuts deployed U.S. and Russian nuclear warheads by one-third, and it includes a detailed monitoring and inspections regime to make sure both sides keep their word.
The Iran nuclear deal has already resulted in a 98% reduction in Iran’s stockpile of highly enriched uranium, the disabling of a plutonium factory that could have produced bomb-making materials, and a regime of regular international inspections.
Solid agreements like New START and the Iran nuclear deal take a great deal of time and effort to negotiate. Throwing them away on a whim would be the height of recklessness.
Trump’s Twisted Budget Priorities
The issue of whether to buy a whole new generation of nuclear warheads and nuclear delivery vehicles will be debated against the backdrop of the Trump administration’s fiscal year 2018 budget proposal, which calls for a $54 billion increase in Pentagon spending and comparable reductions in spending on diplomacy and domestic needs.
Even before Trump’s proposed increase, Pentagon spending is at historically high levels. At roughly $600 billion per year now, Pentagon and related spending is higher than the peak of the Reagan military buildup, and larger than the combined military budgets of the next eight largest spenders in the world combined, most of them U.S. allies. So the Pentagon may have problems, but a lack of funds isn’t one of them.
Trump’s proposed increase alone is a huge sum by global standards. At $54 billion, the Trump increase is almost as large as the entire military budget of France, and larger than the total military budgets of the United Kingdom, Germany, or Japan. And it’s only $12 billion less than Russia’s whole military budget.
The Trump increase is also a huge sum compared to the domestic programs that are on the chopping block to pay for the $54 billion in increased Pentagon funding. When Trump’s budget blueprint was first taking form, White House budget director Mick Mulvaney announced a “hit list” of eight programs or agencies that would be zeroed out in the fiscal year 2018 budget proposal. The list included the National Endowment for the Humanities; the National Endowment for the Arts; Legal Services; Americorps; the Corporation for Public Broadcasting; the U.S. Institute for Peace; and Planned Parenthood. Gutting all of these agencies and programs combined would save $3 billion per year — that’s one-half of one percent of the Pentagon’s annual budget, before the proposed Trump add-ons. The $3 billion for all of those programs is also less than one-eighth of the $25 billion the Pentagon wastes on bureaucratic overhead every year.
And of course the budget director’s hit list is just a small part of the larger assault on spending for diplomacy and domestic needs that is part of the Trump budget blueprint. The Environmental Protection Agency is slated for a 31% cut; the State Department budget is proposed to be cut by 29%; and support for humanitarian aid through the United Nations — mostly refugee and food assistance at a time of massive refugee flows and near famine in parts of Africa and the Middle East — could be cut by up to 50%.
Three block grant programs that provide services like heating aid to low income households, homeless housing and services, ands support for Meals on Wheels programs are scheduled to be eliminated altogether, at a cost of $8 billion. The $8 billion cost of those programs is less than the cost of one new ballistic missile firing submarine — and the Pentagon wants us to pay for twelve of them.
The Pentagon’s $1 Trillion Nuclear Buildup: What Are We Buying?
The James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies has done a report on the “trillion dollar triad” — the plan to build a new generation of nuclear-armed bombers, submarines, and missiles, complete with new warheads to go with them, at a cost of roughly $1 trillion over three decades.
Here are the major components of that proposed $1 trillion nuclear weapons buildup:
— New nuclear warhead facilities, and new nuclear warheads, $350 billion, spent through the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA);
— 12 new ballistic missile submarines at over $8 billion each, or roughly $100 billion in total
— 100 B-21 bombers for up to $1 billion each, or $100 billion total
— Hundreds of new intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), at a cost of up to $120 billion
— A new nuclear-armed cruise missile, at a cost of up to $20 billion for the whole program
Things could change — fewer systems could be bought, and the $1 trillion price tag could go down. Or, as usually happens, the original estimates could go up as a result of the cost overruns that are almost inevitable in any major weapons program.
Who Profits from Spending on Nuclear Weapons?
A handful of companies will be the main beneficiaries of the Pentagon’s nuclear weapons spending binge.
B-21 Bomber: Northrop Grumman is the prime contractor; the Pratt and Whitney division of United Technologies will build the engines; and BAE Systems, a global defense firm based primarily in the UK and the United States, is a major subcontractor.
Ballistic Missile Submarine: General Dynamics will be the prime contractor, with major assistance from Virginia-based Huntington Ingalls Shipbuilding.
ICBM and nuclear-armed cruise missile: Contracts have not been awarded yet for these systems, but bidders will include Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Boeing, and Raytheon.
Nuclear warheads: The biggest beneficiaries of spending on nuclear warheads are the contractors that run major facilities for the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), including Honeywell, which runs the Sandia nuclear weapons engineering laboratory in New Mexico, and a consortium that includes the University of California and Becthel, which run the Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore nuclear weapons laboratories.
The best list of major nuclear weapons producers is maintained by Don’t Bank on the Bomb, a campaign that presses banks to withdraw support for companies involved in developing or producing nuclear weapons. Their web site profiles over two dozen major nuclear weapons supplying companies.
Opportunity Costs: What Can We Buy With $1 Trillion?
Not only is it unnecessary to embark on a three decade, $1 trillion effort to build a new generation of nuclear weapons, but it’s dangerous. As noted above, a tiny fraction of the existing U.S. stockpile is enough to dissuade any nation from attacking the United States with a nuclear weapon. Anything beyond that just encourages other countries to modernize and expand their own arsenals. And the more nuclear weapons there are the more likely one will be used. In fact, the only guaranteed protection against nuclear weapons is to get rid of them all. That’s a daunting challenge, but as a first step we have to stop building new nuclear weapons at a time when the United States and the other nuclear weapons states possess vast nuclear overkill.
The ultimate cost of the trillion dollar buildup is the risk it poses to the future of life on earth.
There are also huge opportunity costs associated with spending vast sums on nuclear weapons we don’t need. The Future of Life Institute has created an online tool that lets you choose alternative ways to spend that trillion dollars. I tried it, and I found out we could buy the following things instead of wasting a trillion dollars on a new generation of nuclear weapons:
— 100 Million School Lunches: $235 million
— 10,000 High School Science Teachers for one year: $553 million
— Salvage and Protect All Superfund Toxic Waste Sites for one year: $681 million
— Provide Federal Funding for Planned Parenthood for one year: $528 million
— Health Insurance for 1 Million Families for one year: $16.8 billion
— End Homelessness for one year: $20 billion
— Fix All Deficient Bridges in the U.S.: $71 billion
All of the above investments represent only about 10 percent of the $1 trillion the Pentagon wants to spend on nuclear weapons over the next three decades.
There is one option offered by the Future of Life Institute tool that would put a serious dent in the $1 trillion spending total:
— Burn a $1 Million Pile of Cash Every Hour for Thirty Years: $262 Billion
Burning piles of cash would be a waste of money, to be sure, but it would be a far better, and far safer, use of the funds than spending them on extending a nuclear arms race that puts us all at risk.
This article is adapted from a presentation made by William D. Hartung, the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy, at a conference on “Reducing the Threat of Nuclear War” that was held at MIT on May 6th, 2017.