The budget is busted; American soldiers need more armor; they're running out of supplies. Yet the Department of Energy is spending an astonishing $6.5 billion on nuclear weapons this year, and President Bush is requesting $6.8 billion more for next year and a total of $30 billion over the following four years. This does not include his much-cherished missile-defense program, by the way. This is simply for the maintenance, modernization, development, and production of nuclear bombs and warheads.
Measured in "real dollars" (that is, adjusting for inflation), this year's spending on nuclear activities is equal to what Ronald Reagan spent at the height of the U.S.-Soviet standoff. It exceeds by over 50 percent the average annual sum ($4.2 billion) that the United States spent—again, in real dollars—throughout the four and a half decades of the Cold War.
There is no nuclear arms race going on now. The world no longer offers many suitable nuclear targets. President Bush is trying to persuade other nations—especially "rogue regimes"—to forgo their nuclear ambitions. Yet he is shoveling money to U.S. nuclear weapons laboratories as if the Soviet Union still existed and the Cold War still raged.
These are the findings of a virtually unnoticed report written by weapons analyst Christopher Paine, based on data from official budget documents, and released earlier this month by the Natural Resources Defense Council.
The report raises anew a question that always springs to mind after a close look at the U.S. military budget: What the hell is going on here? Specifically: Do we really need to be spending this kind of money on nuclear weapons? What role do nuclear weapons play in 21st-century military policy? How many weapons do we need, to deter what sort of attack or to hit what sorts of targets, with what level of confidence, for what strategic and tactical purposes?
These are questions that haven't been seriously addressed in this country for 30 years. It may be time for a new look.
Ten years ago, spending on nuclear activities amounted to $3.4 billion, half of today's sum. In President Clinton's last budget, it totaled $5.2 billion, still one-third less than this year's. (All figures are adjusted for inflation and expressed in 2004 dollars.) Have new threats emerged that can be handled only by a vast expansion or improvement of the U.S. nuclear arsenal? Has our nuclear stockpile deteriorated by a startling degree? There's no evidence that either is the case.
Yet Paine quotes a statement from the National Nuclear Security Administration—the quasi-independent agency of the Energy Department that's in charge of the atomic stockpile—declaring, as its goal, "to revitalize the nuclear weapons manufacturing infrastructure." Its guidance on this point is the Bush administration's Nuclear Posture Review of December 2001, which stated that U.S. strategic nuclear forces must provide "a range of options" not merely to deter but "to defeat any aggressor."
The one aspect of this reorientation that's attracted some attention is the development of a "robust nuclear earth-penetrator" (RNEP)—a warhead that can burrow deep into the earth before exploding, in order to destroy underground bunkers. The U.S. Air Force currently has some non-nuclear earth-penetrators, but they can't burrow deeply enough or explode powerfully enough to destroy some known bunkers. There's a legitimate debate over whether we would need to destroy such bunkers or whether it would be good enough to disable them—a feat that the conventional bunker-busters could accomplish. There's a broader question still over whether an American president really would, or should, be the first to fire nuclear weapons in wartime, no matter how tempting the tactical advantage.
The point here, however, is that this new nuclear weapon is fast becoming a reality.