The Republican presidential candidates have no clue how dangerous the current age of nuclear rearmament really is.
- By Tom Z. CollinaTom Z. Collina is Director of Policy at Ploughshares Fund, a global security foundation in Washington, DC.
The Republican presidential debates have covered a range of national security issues, from China, to Islamist terrorism, to the defense budget. But only recently have the candidates begun talking about a key issue: the future of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. That’s the good news. The bad news is how shockingly little they know about the subject.
At the debate on Jan. 14, Ben Carson said he was concerned about adversaries “obtaining nuclear weapons that they can explode in our exoatmosphere and destroy our electric grid.” Rick Santorum mentioned this too, as did Ted Cruz last year. This is a fringe issue, more the stuff of action movies than real life. Hardly prime-time debate material.
But when it comes to the dangers we actually face here in the real world, the candidates don’t fare much better. At the Dec. 15 debate, front-runner Donald Trump tripped over a question about the importance (and budget difficulties) involved in modernizing America’s nuclear triad. In response, he rambled that “nuclear is just the power, the devastation is very important to me,” a statement that plainly showed he hadn’t bothered to do his homework on the issue. In a Jan. 11 interview, Jeb Bush shot back, saying that if Trump wants to be the next president, “the dude ought to try to figure out what the nuclear triad is.”
None of the GOP candidates seem prepared to confront the complexities of our nuclear arsenal. Even worse, they fail to grasp the meat of the issue. Over the last few years, the Obama administration has announced plans to rebuild the U.S. nuclear arsenal, to the tune of $1 trillion over the next 30 years, promising to build 12 nuclear-armed submarines, 100 strategic bombers, about 400 land-based ballistic missiles, 1,000 cruise missiles, and hundreds of upgraded bombs and warheads to go with them. This, from the same president who in 2009 called for world free of nuclear weapons while promising to reduce their role in U.S. national security strategy.
The next president, of whichever party, will inherit this plan, and will have to decide how to implement it. So, at the next GOP debate on Jan. 28, it would reasonable to ask the candidates: Does this plan even make sense?
Consider the fact that the United States still has about 4,700 nuclear weapons in its stockpile. That’s about the same number as Russia, and 20 times more than China; North Korea has about a dozen. It’s safe to say we’ve got far more nuclear weapons than we need. President Ronald Reagan tried and failed to eliminate nukes, but did succeed in negotiating major reductions with Russia, as did both Presidents Bush and Obama. Now, the remaining weapons have aged and we have reached a historic decision point: retire them or replace them? The Obama administration seems to have settled on an answer.
But President Obama’s overblown effort is dangerous. “We’re now at the precipice, maybe I should say the brink, of a new nuclear arms race,” former Secretary of Defense William J. Perry said in Dec. 3 in a speech to the Defense Writers Group. And Perry should know. Serving as Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering in the 1970s and 1980s, he played a key role in the last nuclear buildup, championing such doomsday weapons as the Trident submarine, the B-2 “stealth” bomber and the nuclear-tipped cruise missile.
But now, as the Pentagon seeks to replace its stockpile, Perry and others worry that the Obama administration, without fully debating its options, is rushing ahead to buy out the store. Defense planners say the world is a dangerous place, and the United States must rebuild all of its nuclear forces to stay safe. Perry fears this will revive Cold War-era nuclear dangers. “I see an imperative to stop this damn nuclear race before it gets under way again, not just for the cost but for the danger it puts all of us in,” he said.
All of this sends the mistaken message to the rest of the world that nuclear weapons are useful. Why else would the United States spend $1 trillion on them? And if the world’s only superpower wants to invest in new nukes, others surely will want them too.
Moscow will view this as a justification to build new nukes of its own — weapons like the submarine bomb whose design was recently “leaked” by President Vladimir Putin. China, in turn, would expand its forces, as would North Korea, which just conducted its fourth nuclear test. India would react to China, and Pakistan to India. This proliferation only increases the risk that nuclear weapons or materials will wind up in terrorist hands.
What exacerbates the problem are the wishes of the generals at the Pentagon. The Defense Department wants new everything — submarines, bombers, and long-range missiles — despite four years of budget caps. And, so far, it has ignored Obama’s declared goal of reducing the role of nuclear weapons, instead requesting more accurate, lower-yield weapons that might be more likely to be used. Gen. James E. Cartwright, a retired vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the New York Times this month that “what going smaller does,” for nuclear weapons, “is to make the weapon more thinkable.”
The Obama administration’s nuclear spending plans simply make no sense. It would be like Google investing a trillion dollars in typewriters.
That’s because nuclear weapons are artifacts of a bygone era. The greatest dangers to the United States today come from the Islamic State, global warming, and the proliferation of nuclear weapons to other nations or groups. Nuclear weapons play no positive role in countering these threats; deterrence has no impact. France’s nukes did not protect Paris from the recent attacks it suffered. U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe did not keep Russia out of Ukraine, and more or “better” nukes certainly won’t push them out, despite what some analysts might say.
What nukes most certainly do, however, is siphon scarce tax dollars from higher defense priorities. As Perry has said, the United States does not need a new nuclear-tipped cruise missile, nor a new intercontinental ballistic missile. The Navy does not need 12 new nuclear-armed submarines. Such reasonable steps can save tens of billions of dollars over the next decade alone.
The president can begin to set things right by cutting back on the Pentagon’s nuclear wish list in the next defense budget, which is now being finalized. It’s the only way to tell the Pentagon that its “shop ‘til you drop” nuclear spending is over — a message the Republican presidential candidates would be wise to embrace. The Democrats certainly have. Hillary Clinton told a questioner in Iowa on Jan. 7 that spending a trillion dollars on a nuclear reboot “doesn’t make sense to [her].” Bernie Sanders supports legislation to trim billions in fat from the program, while still maintaining a strong arsenal.
Republican candidates say they want to make America safer and reduce federal spending. And yet they support the Obama administration’s nuclear arsenal plan, which threatens to do the opposite. Maybe, as they prepare for the next debate, the candidates should reconsider their thoughts about the future of America’s nuclear force.
Photo Credit: Scott Olson / Getty Images News