By Greg Thielmann, Senior Fellow, Arms Control Association
The following piece was originally posted online at The Des Moines Register on August 4, 2011.
Washington is obsessed these days with reducing the deficit. The GOP presidential contenders crisscrossing Iowa give prominence to the issue as well. But even as they call for ever deeper budget cuts, they have been reluctant to look at trimming the $27 billion annual cost of operating and maintaining our bloated Cold War nuclear arsenal and the $125 billion planned for building new weapons in the decade ahead.
Iowa Republicans can use the state’s privileged place in the presidential sweepstakes to ensure that candidates stop ignoring the nuclear elephant in the room. They can refer to the dramatic deficit reduction proposal recently advanced by one of the most conservative members in the U.S. Senate, Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who called for cutting $79 billion from U.S. strategic nuclear forces over the next decade.
The potential impact of fiscal policy on defense programs was highlighted last year by Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, when he said, “the single biggest threat to our national security is our debt.” Coburn’s proposal addresses the way defense cuts can contribute in turn toward restoring fiscal balance — improving the economic fundamentals on which national prosperity depends, while maintaining the nuclear deterrent at the heart of U.S. national security strategy.
Further reductions in the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile can now be safely contemplated, because the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) is in force. The treaty, approved by the U.S. Senate in a bipartisan 71-26 vote last December, has enhanced predictability for both sides.
Without New START, Russia might have slowed the retirement of its older ballistic missiles, each bearing multiple, city-killing nuclear warheads. Without the hundreds of notifications about Russian strategic force activities that have been received under the treaty and the regular implementation of the treaty’s on-site verification, the United States would have much less confidence in assessing the status of Russia’s nuclear arsenal.
The presidential candidates should look at the nuclear balance of forces in the wake of New START. The Russians are already below two of the treaty’s three key limits — 700 for deployed missiles and bombers, and 1,550 for deployed warheads and bombers — nearly seven years before the deadline. The United States is moving slowly toward bringing its forces under the limits, which means it continues to spend money servicing and operating weapons deemed non-essential.
By the time the United States gets down to the treaty limits, it may have hundreds more operational warheads than Russia. It is likely to have 15 times more than China and 300 times more than either North Korea or Iran. U.S. conventional forces will be far superior to any adversary. In light of the growing strategic imbalance in our favor and in consideration of our dire fiscal straits, it is proper to question whether the Pentagon should carry out exorbitant plans to simultaneously modernize all three legs of the nuclear triad. Many defense experts, like Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, say it doesn’t have the money to do so, given other requirements.
The Cold War ended 20 years ago. Our military leadership is now focused on the 21st century threats of nuclear proliferation, peacekeeping, and international terrorism. Even the commander of U.S. Strategic Forces, Gen. Robert Kehler, emphasizes that Cold War competition is over, that Russia is no longer an enemy and that weapons of mass destruction use by terrorists rather than Russia heads his threat list. The rationale is long gone for maintaining thousands of nuclear weapons, each many times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima 66 years ago.
Candidates who aspire to lead the nation need to be able to explain the connection between fiscal and security challenges. Iowa voters need to ask them to do so.