Argument

Welcome to the Pentagon’s Department of B.S. Accounting

Creating a special, separate fund for nuclear weapons is Secretary of Defense Ash Carter’s worst idea ever. Even his own deputies find it sketchy.

AT SEA- DECEMBER 10: US Defense Secretary Ash Carter (R) and India's Minister of Defense Manohar Parrikar (L) inspect a jet engine in the hanger deck of the USS Eisenhower off the coast of Virginia, December 10, 2015 in the Atlantic Ocean. Secretary Carter visited the carrier with India's Minister of Defense Manohar Parrikar to demonstrate US Navy aircraft carrier flight operations.  (Photo by )
AT SEA- DECEMBER 10: US Defense Secretary Ash Carter (R) and India's Minister of Defense Manohar Parrikar (L) inspect a jet engine in the hanger deck of the USS Eisenhower off the coast of Virginia, December 10, 2015 in the Atlantic Ocean. Secretary Carter visited the carrier with India's Minister of Defense Manohar Parrikar to demonstrate US Navy aircraft carrier flight operations. (Photo by )

Wouldn’t it be great if you could take a big chunk of your annual expenses — say your cable bill or mortgage payment — and leave it out of your budget and find someone else to pay for it? Maybe your favorite aunt or cousin would like to assume these obligations. Crazy, right?

Not if you’re the U.S. Navy and Air Force — which are trying to get out of paying their fair share of the Obama administration’s $1 trillion plan to rebuild the nuclear arsenal over 30 years. For the military, this idea is so crazy it just might work.

Speaking last week before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Defense Secretary Ash Carter said for the first time that such a scheme “may make sense.” In response to a question from Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), Carter agreed that “a broader nuclear deterrent fund may be appropriate.”

What Carter is hinting at is that he might allow the Navy and Air Force to avoid hundreds of billions of dollars in costs for new nuclear weapons and put them in a special, separate fund in the defense budget. Supporters say this would free up scarce resources inside the military services to pay for the things they really need, such as conventional forces, counterterrorism, cyber, etc. But don’t be fooled: This a cynical budget gimmick.

There are three main problems with the special-fund idea. First, it fails to address a central issue, which is a lack of funding. Even if you create a special fund, the money to pay for the nuclear weapons has to come from somewhere, and the overall defense budget would still need to rise. If there were enough money, you would not need the fund in the first place. For example, even though congressional authorizers created a fund for the Navy’s new $100 billion nuclear-armed submarine program, appropriators have not put any money into it.

Carter of all people should understand this, and what makes his statements so surprising is that he is directly contradicting his senior staff. Pentagon comptroller Mike McCord said in November that he was skeptical of the special-fund idea: “What are you going to cut to put money in that fund? Or are you going to get more money overall?”

And Undersecretary of Defense Frank Kendall has said, “At the end of the day we have to find money to pay for these things one way or another, right? So changing the accounting system doesn’t really change that fundamental requirement. We still need the money, and it has to come from somewhere.” The special fund is just a ploy cooked up by nuclear weapons boosters in Congress to make it easier to buy new toys without having to cut anything from “core” budgets.

Second, a special nuclear fund is a dangerous, addictive habit — like crack cocaine or HBO GO. Once you create a slush fund for the military services to off-load their low-priority programs, everyone will want a piece of that action. Following the Navy’s example, the Air Force is asking for its nuclear weapons projects — a $60 billion land-based ballistic missile, $100 billion long-range bomber, and $25 billion cruise missile — to be included too. As Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James said last week, if there is a fund for the Navy, “I would ask for consideration that all legs of the triad be included in such an approach.”

Where does this end? If the Navy and Air Force are allowed to transfer nuclear programs into a fund, why not the entire National Nuclear Security Administration, which runs the nuclear warhead production complex? What about funding for early warning satellites, command and control, nuclear waste cleanup, and missile defense? And, hey, if nuclear weapons have their own fund — because they are supposedly “national assets” — why not aircraft carriers, tanks, troops, and military operations in Iraq? These are national assets, too.

Third, the real issue is not the fund or the funding, but the mission. The Pentagon’s plans for new nuclear weapons are excessive and wasteful. The United States can maintain its security and spend far less than the Obama administration plans to.

Instead of pushing for a special fund, the Pentagon can live within its means and scale back its plans. The United States does not need to completely rebuild every part of the nuclear arsenal as if the Cold War never ended. In fact, it’s dangerous. “We are about to begin a new round in the nuclear arms race unless some brake is put on it right now,” former Secretary of Defense Bill Perry said last year.

Perry would cancel the Air Force’s planned new nuclear-armed cruise missile, as well as a new generation of land-based ballistic missiles. The Air Force’s missile operations hardly inspire confidence, as staff stumbles from scandal to scandal, and were recently implicated in new accusations of drug use. Despite what the Air Force says, this is not a just morale issue, but goes much deeper. There is no longer a compelling reason for the United States to maintain a force of nuclear-armed, land-based ballistic missiles. Perry has said he supports only a nuclear force of submarines and bombers.

Both sides agree on one thing: the need for a national debate. “We should force a public debate in the United States on the hugely expensive program to rebuild our nuclear arsenal,” Perry says, “a program that we are simply drifting into.”

Gen. Paul Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in March: “We have a bill to pay to modernize our nuclear force in all three legs of the triad. And we need to figure out how to do that and how to talk about it so that everybody understands why each leg of the triad is so important.”

Let’s have that debate. But let’s not create special funds to spend money we don’t have on nuclear weapons we don’t need. Secretary Carter should listen to his own staff and put this bad idea to rest.

Photo credit: MARK WILSON/Getty Images

Tom Z. Collina is Director of Policy at Ploughshares Fund, a global security foundation in Washington, DC.

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