Cut the Deficit by Cutting Nuclear Weapons
By Tim Cullen on 10/19/2011 @ 01:01 PM
During the past several weeks, we in the nuclear disarmament program have been working to support an effort led by Rep. Ed Markey (MA) to make reductions in spending on nuclear weapons. On October 11, Markey announced that 65 representatives had signed a letter to the “super committee” calling for such cuts. Markey’s letter was supported by dozens of arms control groups, and by retired Lt. Gen. Robert Gard, chair of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.
On October 11, and October 13, Rep. Mike Turner (OH), chair of the House Armed Service Subcommittee on Strategic Forces, issued press releases which call into question the wisdom of Markey’s (and by extension, our) efforts. While reading Turner’s press releases, I have found that I disagree with his assessment of Markey’s letter. To my eyes, Turner feels that Markey wants to see the country’s entire nuclear arsenal eliminated. Although the outcome that Turner fears is one that I would like to see, Markey’s efforts are not, in actuality, so extreme.
In the October 11 release, Turner claims that Markey wants to “make cuts to our nuclear deterrent” and that Markey’s plan, “amounts to unilateral disarmament of the U.S.” Indeed, there is room for debate in regards to the various dollar amounts that are being thrown around. It is difficult to pin down exactly how much money is spent on nuclear weapons because no single agency in the government deals with all aspects of the nuclear weapons. However, in my reading of his letter, Markey is not proposing to reduce the U.S. ability to maintain an effective deterrence.
In fact, Markey’s point is just the opposite. The country’s current stockpile in excess of 5,000 nuclear warheads provides more than enough firepower to destroy the planet several times over, never mind just our enemies. As Markey’s letter points out, one nuclear-armed submarine carries up to 96 warheads, enough firepower to easily lay waste to any potential adversary. Markey suggests that the U.S. has far more firepower than is necessary for deterrence and spending money maintaining a nuclear arsenal that is far beyond what is necessary is an irresponsible waste of money. Total disarmament is my preferred outcome, but its not yet what Markey is proposing.
Turner’s press releases are particularly concerned with a threat to the “modernization” of the nuclear arsenal. He focuses on the idea that the National Nuclear Security Administration, responsible for maintaining the nuclear stockpile, will not get enough funding to ensure the effectiveness of the country’s nuclear warheads.
It is not clear what Turner means when he uses the term “modernization.” If he is concerned that Markey does not want to ensure that U.S. nuclear weapons will be functional and deliverable to their potential targets, he needs not fear. Law requires that the nuclear stockpile be certified to the president as safe and reliable on an annual basis. Furthermore, most of the cuts that Markey proposes come from expensive weapons systems used to deliver nuclear weapons. For example, he asks that only eight, instead of 12, new nuclear-armed submarines be built to replace the current fleet. He estimates this would result in a savings of $27 billion. Making these cuts would allow adequate maintenance of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. The U.S. is obligated to make reductions in warheads because of the New START Treaty, which the U.S. and Russia ratified late last year.
Finally, Turner’s October 13 release emphasizes that Turner has access to classified information as a result of his position on the Strategic Forces Subcommittee, to which Markey may not have had access. Presumably, Turner feels that this information would have changed Markey’s ideas about spending cuts. However, it seems whatever was revealed in those classified briefings leaves room for interpretation. The ranking Democrat on that same subcommittee, Rep. Loretta Sanchez (CA), who would also have been present for the briefings, chose to sign onto Markey’s letter, apparently unconcerned that the nuclear deterrent would be adversely affected.
In short, Turner is confused about Markey’s letter. Markey is calling not for a reduction in what Turner feels are necessary capabilities, but for a reduction in spending on a fiscally irresponsible excess of nuclear weapons and delivery systems. Of course, I prefer that nuclear weapons be eliminated all together. Still, Markey is taking a step in the right direction in asking that our massive spending on nuclear weapons programs and systems be reconsidered. This money is better spent helping those struggling at home, rather than to threatening potential adversaries abroad.