As the Biden administration begins working out its defense budget for fiscal year 2022, the debate heats up over how to deal with the U.S. nuclear arsenal.
Proponents of the Trump administration’s approach of igniting the flames of a burgeoning arms race warn that deviation could lead to disaster.
However, President Joe Biden seems to have a different view. During the campaign, he said the United States “does not need new nuclear weapons” and that his “government will work to maintain a strong, credible deterrent while reducing our dependency and excessive spending on nuclear weapons.”
Biden is right. Current US nuclear weapons policy goes beyond what is required for a credible nuclear deterrent and its financial cost is taking a growing toll. Biden should use his upcoming budget to steer the country in a safer and more affordable direction.
In addition to continuing plans to replace the nuclear triad and associated warheads, the Trump administration pursued new types of weapons and better infrastructure for making bombs. It also expanded the circumstances under which President Donald Trump would consider using nuclear weapons. Worse still, the government put New START – the only remaining agreement that has been shown to limit the size of the US and Russian nuclear arsenals – close to expiring.
Given the danger he had inherited, Biden quickly and wisely agreed with Russian President Vladimir Putin to extend New START for five years.
However, there is more damage involved in undoing.
Trump’s fiscal year 21 budget proposal of $ 44.5 billion to maintain and upgrade the nuclear arsenal was a 19 percent year-over-year increase. Spending is likely to exceed $ 1.5 trillion over the next few decades.
Russian and Chinese nuclear advances and aggressive behavior seem to justify such investments. However, the spending plans pose a major threat to security priorities, which are more relevant to fighting Moscow and Beijing and pledging allies. A long-anticipated budget statement has arrived.
Press reports indicate that the Pentagon has begun a brief review of the nuclear company, focusing on low-yield weapons and nuclear guidance and control, to inform the fiscal 22nd budget proposal scheduled for early May.
An early reassessment of the Trump administration’s dubious proposal to double the number of more usable, low-yield nuclear options is more than justified. In particular, the Biden government should not provide funding to begin development of a new nuclear-armed cruise missile fired at sea. The weapon, which is expected to cost at least $ 9 billion over the next decade, is a redundant and costly hedge against a hedge.
However, the mini-review should go further and pause on other controversial programs pending the outcome of a broader policy review later this year. For example, the administration should freeze funds for the Air Force’s program to build a new land-based ICBM at the current year’s level. In addition, the budget for the National Administration for Nuclear Safety should be set at the level envisaged for FY22 from the budget request for FY20.
ICBMs are the least valuable and stabilizing triad, and the Pentagon has not adequately assessed the availability of lower-cost alternatives to purchasing a new ICBM system, which is expected to cost about $ 100 billion. The extreme growth in the NNSA’s arms budget under Trump and impractical timing targets for many warhead and infrastructure replacement efforts also deserve much closer scrutiny.
These freezes would avoid spending around $ 4 billion in FY22, and they would be especially valuable if, as it appears likely, Biden decides to lower the overall national defense ceiling compared to what the Trump administration is proposing has to reduce.
They would also create the conditions for a later fuller nuclear policy review that would revise outdated planning assumptions, cut off the most excessive and destabilizing elements of the arsenal, and support Biden’s desire to negotiate new arms control and reduction arrangements.
In 2013, the Obama administration ruled that the security of the United States and its allies can be maintained while the nuclear weapons used will be reduced by up to a third under New START. The case for such a reduction remains strong. The size of Russia’s strategic nuclear force has not changed since then and is still smaller than that of the United States. China’s much smaller nuclear arsenal has grown only modestly.
The Biden government should try to reduce the US arsenal together with Russia. But Moscow should not have any veto power over adjustments to violence that make sense for US national security.
Reducing the modernization program in line with a one-third cut could save at least $ 80 billion by 2030 while allowing the United States to continue to maintain a nuclear triad. These funds would be far better spent on priorities such as defending and responding to pandemics, as well as developing China’s conventional military capabilities.
Some supporters of the status quo argue that spending cuts would undermine US leverage at the negotiating table. That is not convincing.
For example, Moscow has identified restrictions on US non-nuclear weapons such as missile defense as priority conditions for further Russian nuclear reductions. The success or failure of new arms control talks will depend, in large part, on how these issues are addressed, and not on whether the United States builds a new ICBM.
The Trump administration’s free, costly and dangerous nuclear strategy requires a fundamental rethink. President Biden should trust his instincts and build a better one.
Kingston Reif is the Disarmament and Threat Reduction Policy Director for the Arms Control Association.