Wasting Money on Instruments of Death: Nuclear Weapons in the 2022 Budget

The Biden administration’s budget proposal for Fiscal Year 2022 contains much to disturb peace activists. The budget continues the long-standing pattern of grotesquely large military spending, with $715 billion allocated to the Defense Department.[1] Further, the budget specifically continues to fund lavishly the most extreme instruments of death, nuclear weapons. Peace activists need to work against this practice of wasting billions of dollars on such weapons.

Trends in Nuclear Spending

Spending on nuclear weapons has a long, dishonorable history. William Perry and Tom Collina, in their book The Button, estimate that during the Cold War arms race the United States spent roughly $10 trillion—or about $30,000 for every person in the contemporary United States—on nuclear weapons.[2] More recently, massive nuclear spending has experienced a revival in the last decade or so.

In 2010, President Obama secured the Republican votes in the Senate necessary to ratify the START arms control treaty by promising to invest in maintaining and replacing the US nuclear arsenal.[3] As the nuclear upgrade program continued, its costs rapidly increased. In 2017, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimated that this nuclear program would cost over $1 trillion over the next 30 years.[4] Meanwhile, the Trump administration continued and expanded the nuclear upgrade program, guided by the goal of countering Russia and China.[5] Earlier this year, the CBO released a new estimate of nuclear costs over the next decade, saying that Defense and Energy Department nuclear activities would cost $634 billion over 2021-2030.[6]

Current Nuclear Spending Plans

The Biden budget proposal doesn’t break with this spending pattern. The proposal calls for spending $43.2 billion on nuclear weapons in FY2022. Of this money, $27.7 billion will go to the Defense Department, with the remaining $15.5 billion going to the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), an Energy Department agency responsible for developing, producing, and maintaining nuclear bombs.[7] The net amount proposed might be less than the Trump administration’s FY2021 request of $44.5 billion (although accounting differences make the two requests difficult to compare), but it is still a considerable sum for nuclear weapons.[8] Also, some specific nuclear weapons-related activities will receive more funding than last fiscal year.

Certain nuclear activities funded by the Biden budget are especially notable examples of wasting huge amounts in pursuit of extreme destructiveness. The budget calls for building a new fleet of submarines, known as the “Columbia class,” to carry nuclear missiles and a new fleet of land-based nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). The money to be allocated to building the submarines ($5 billion) and ICBMs (about $2.6 billion) is an increase over FY2021 spending on these programs.[9]

The budget also contains funding for maintenance of the B83 nuclear warhead. The B83 is the most destructive nuclear bomb in the US arsenal, with a yield of 1.2 megatons, or about 100 times the power of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The Obama administration planned to retire the B83, but the Trump administration decided to retain it and the Biden budget continues this policy. In fact, the FY2022 budget proposal contains almost $99 million to maintain the B83, more than triple the amount allocated to the bomb in FY2021.[10]

Another part of the nuclear upgrade program is a plan to produce dramatically more plutonium “pits,” which serve as the cores of nuclear bombs. In the past, the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, the only facility capable of making plutonium pits, produced 31 pits between 2007 and 2013 and has not produced any more since. However, current plans call for creating a new facility, at Savannah River in South Carolina, to produce plutonium pits. This new facility, together with Los Alamos, is then expected to produce 80 plutonium pits annually by 2030. Plutonium-pit-related activities have received increasing funds over the years, with roughly $2 billion allocated for such activities in FY2022.[11]

Wasteful and Dangerous Plans

Even setting aside moral objections to nuclear weapons, the nuclear planning reflected in the FY2022 budget proposal is highly questionable. The United States already is permitted 1,550 nuclear weapons under the START treaty, which is surely more than enough to “deter” an adversary.[12] US policymakers could and should seek to reduce the nuclear arsenal to a still lower level. In this context, creating the capacity to produce nuclear weapons at a rate of 80 every year is senseless. Maintaining a megaton-level nuclear bomb is similarly redundant and unnecessary—far less destructive weapons are terrifying enough.

Further, building new land-based ICBMs presents problems even beyond redundancy. Land-based nuclear missiles, being stationary, are vulnerable to being destroyed in another nation’s nuclear attack. As Perry and Collina have pointed out, this vulnerability increases the danger of nuclear war. Should the president receive warning of an incoming nuclear attack on the United States, he or she would have only minutes to decide whether to launch the land-based missiles in retaliation, before they’re destroyed by the incoming attack. This situation creates a huge incentive to make fateful decisions quickly, without determining if the situation is a false alarm. Accidental nuclear war may well be the result.[13] The goal should be to retire land-based missiles, not to build a new fleet of them.

At best, current nuclear weapons spending will waste billions of dollars that could be better spent elsewhere. At worst, such spending will perpetuate a nuclear arms race that may end in global catastrophe.

Trying to Restore Sanity

The FY2022 budget proposal may be merely the result of bureaucratic inertia, and the Biden administration may change course once it has completed its own nuclear policy review. Peace activists shouldn’t count on this, though.

We need to push back against continuing the grotesque spending on nuclear weapons. American citizens should contact the president by phone (see  https://www.whitehouse.gov/get-involved/write-or-call/) or email (see https://www.whitehouse.gov/contact/), as well as their representatives in the House (see https://www.house.gov/representatives/find-your-representative) and Senate (see https://www.senate.gov/senators/senators-contact.htm).

As Congress is currently also considering whether to retain the Hyde Amendment and other restrictions on abortion funding in the FY2022 budget, this is a good opportunity to link these issues.[14] Appeals to curtail spending on both nuclear weapons and abortion may get members of Congress’ attention while also breaking through the usual ideological stereotypes. We need radical reductions in the amount of money being spent on methods of killing.

A version of this essay originally appeared on the Consistent Life Network blog.

Notes

[1] “The Department of Defense Releases the President’s Fiscal Year 2022 Defense Budget,” US Department of Defense, May 28, 2021,  https://bit.ly/3ictUk2.

[2] William J. Perry and Tom Z. Collina, The Button: The New Nuclear Arms Race and Presidential Power from Truman to Trump (Dallas: BenBella Books, 2020), 127-128.

[3] Kingston Reif and Shannon Bugos, “Biden’s Disappointing First Nuclear Weapons Budget,” Arms Control Association Issue Brief 13, no. 4 (July 9, 2021), 2, available at https://bit.ly/2VcSJn0.

[4] Perry and Collina, The Button, 106, 235 n2.

[5] Reif and Bugos, “Biden’s Disappointing First Nuclear Weapons Budget,” 2.

[6] “Projected Costs of U.S. Nuclear Forces, 2021 to 2030,” Congressional Budget Office, May 2021, https://bit.ly/3if2BWh.

[7] Reif and Bugos, “Biden’s Disappointing First Nuclear Weapons Budget,” 2; Eryn MacDonald, “New President, Same Wasteful Spending: Why Is the US Still Spending So Much on Nuclear Weapons?” Union of Concerned Scientists, June 25, 2021, https://bit.ly/3fgAX9u.

[8] Reif and Bugos, “Biden’s Disappointing First Nuclear Weapons Budget,” 2; Jon Harper, “Biden to Stay Course on Nuclear Modernization,” National Defense, June 15, 2021, https://bit.ly/2VoRTDH.

[9] Reif and Bugos, “Biden’s Disappointing First Nuclear Weapons Budget,” 4-5.

[10] MacDonald, “New President, Same Wasteful Spending.”

[11] Ibid.

[12] For START details, see “New START Treaty,” US Department of State, accessed July 31, 2021, https://bit.ly/2VnRRM2.

[13] Perry and Collina, The Button, 107-111.

[14] For a pro-life feminist perspective on the Hyde Amendment, see Rachel MacNair, “Why the Hyde Amendment Helps Low-Income Women,” Consistent Life Network blog, October 4, 2016, https://bit.ly/37egRbA.

© 2021 John Whitehead. All rights reserved.

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