Consider this: The Pentagon, as directed by Congress, must dramatically cut its budget. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel warns the projected cuts are so large that they would "break" key parts of the military's national security strategy, and even then "the savings fall well short" of meeting the $500 billion 10-year target.
At the same time, President Barack Obama, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Pentagon have determined that the United States has more strategic nuclear warheads than it needs to deter potential threats and can therefore reduce the deployed stockpile by up to one-third, to about 1,000 warheads. Hagel supported even deeper nuclear reductions before he was tapped to head the Pentagon.
Perfect target for budget cuts, right? Wrong, says Hagel, who has taken the U.S. nuclear weapons budget off the chopping block, all $31 billion per year of it.
But wait, this is exactly the kind of money saving opportunity the Pentagon should jump on. Hagel said July 31 that the just-completed Strategic Choices and Management Review, or SCMR, identified areas where "we have excess capacity to meet current and anticipated future needs," and that he would make program cuts on this basis. In April, Deputy Secretary of Defense Ash Carter told the Harvard Crimson that "we only deserve the amount of money that we need and not the amount of money that we've gotten used to."
Clearly, the Pentagon has yet to accept the fact that, given the depth of its budget hole, everything must be on the table. We cannot afford sacred cows. Nuclear weapons, inherited from the Cold War and poorly suited to today's threats, must compete with other, higher priorities. If Hagel takes nukes off the table, then every dollar not taken from excess nuclear weapons must come from somewhere else.
Here is a sampling of items that have already been cut, and much more is yet to come:
- Fewer than half of the Air Force's frontline fighter squadrons are combat ready, and there could be further cuts to conventional fighter and bomber squadrons.
- The Army has cancelled combat training rotations, and the active force could shrink from 490,000 to 380,000 soldiers.
- The Navy has cancelled multiple ship deployments, and the number of aircraft carrier strike groups could fall from 11 to eight.
- About 650,000 civilian Pentagon employees have been furloughed, and salaries, health care, and retirement benefits may all be cut.
These are significant reductions to conventional forces that are relevant to today's threats. Can it really be that all of this is less important than the nuclear weapons that the military says we no longer need?
Of course, the United States should base decisions about its nuclear arsenal on strategic calculations, not just budgetary savings. But the strategic thinking has already been done. With full Pentagon backing, President Obama announced on June 19 in Berlin that "we can ensure the security of America and our allies, and maintain a strong and credible strategic deterrent, while reducing our deployed strategic nuclear weapons by up to one-third" below the limits established by the 2010 New START Treaty.
Part of the problem at the Pentagon is the persistent myth that nuclear weapons are "cheap." This misperception goes all the way to the top, with Deputy Secretary Carter stating in July that "nuclear weapons don't actually cost that much." By his estimate -- which only includes the costs of operating nuclear delivery systems and command-and-control infrastructure -- the Pentagon spends approximately $16 billion per year.