Even as the Pentagon budget soars toward $1 trillion per year and President Joe Biden is seeking a $100 billion-plus emergency spending package to, among other things, provide military aid to Ukraine and Israel, a new congressional commission report has suggested spending even more. This time the money would go toward a dangerous and unnecessary nuclear weapons buildup that could devour huge quantities of tax dollars for years to come.
The panel, which officially goes by the rather intimidating name of the Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States, wants to pave the way for a future president to increase or replace virtually every element of America’s nuclear arsenal, from nuclear-armed missiles and submarines to new nuclear warheads. Given our current stockpile of over 5,000 nuclear weapons — enough to end life as we know it several times over — the commission’s proposals would represent a textbook case of nuclear overkill.
At a recent Senate hearing on the commission’s report, only a handful of members raised questions about what its recommendations would cost, including Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) and Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). Amazingly, the commission co-chairs not only couldn’t say, but acknowledged that they hadn’t even tried to make an estimate. At a time when the national debt is over $33 trillion, this is an inexcusable case of fiscal irresponsibility.
The Pentagon is already in the midst of a three-decades-long effort to build a new generation of nuclear weapons that could cost up to $2 trillion. Spending even more would undermine both our military and economic security. The most likely outcome of such an initiative would be an accelerated arms race with Russia and China that would increase, not decrease, the risk of a devastating nuclear conflict.
Why would the commission make such a misguided set of recommendations at a time when America can ill afford to carry them out? The answer seems to be a mix of outmoded thinking and conflicts of interest. To cite just one example, commission co-chair Jon Kyl, a former senator from Arizona, has been a lifelong opponent of nuclear arms control dating back to his successful effort to block United States ratification of a comprehensive ban on nuclear testing that would have slowed the spread of these deadly weapons. After leaving the Senate, Kyl served a stint as a lobbyist for Northrop Grumman, the company that benefits most from our current buildup as prime contractor for a new nuclear-armed bomber and a new land-based, long range nuclear-armed missile.
To the extent that the commission’s recommendations have a real-world rationale, it is the prospect that China will build up its nuclear arsenal to 1,000 weapons or more over the next decade, a figure close to but lower than the current level of deployed U.S. nuclear weapons, and far below the overall U.S. stockpile of over 5,000. In any case, preventing nuclear conflict is not a numbers game, as Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has aptly noted: “Nuclear deterrence isn’t just a numbers game. In fact, that sort of thinking can spur a dangerous arms race.”
Furthermore, as the Arms Control Association has pointed out, “a large-scale nuclear exchange between the United States and Russia would kill and injure more than 90 million people in the first few hours, and many more in the days and weeks afterward. This is no time for a new nuclear arms race.”
To add insult to injury, the congressional commission recommends seeking to limit or reduce global nuclear arsenals only after its proposed buildup is well along, an approach that would effectively kill efforts at nuclear arms control for decades to come.
There has to be a better way. The Biden administration and Congress should take the new report with more than a few grains of salt, and devise an alternative plan that can save both money and lives in a world already racked by dangerous conflicts.
William D. Hartung is a senior research fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.