The headlines on the Pentagon budget unveiled by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel this week were all about austerity: the smallest U.S. Army since 1940; fewer aircraft, ships and armored vehicles; even some modest belt-tightening on future military pay and benefits.
But one category of military spending largely escaped the budget ax: nuclear weapons.
The United States has about 1,600 long-range nuclear weapons on active duty — more than any other country, including Vladimir Putin's Russia. Under the 2010 New START treaty, the United States and Russia agreed to reduce their arsenals to no more than 1,550 warheads apiece by 2018. The Russians are already below the treaty ceiling after taking missiles out of service as part of a modernization program. But the U.S. doesn't appear to be in any hurry.
Maintaining and modernizing our giant arsenal, which, happily, seems increasingly unlikely to ever be used, is expensive. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that U.S. nuclear forces will cost $355 billion over the next 10 years. About $89 billion of that will go to replacing aging missiles, submarines and bombers, and those costs will grow much larger after 2023, the CBO warned in a recent report.
Worst of all, much of that spending is unnecessary. Almost every expert on nuclear weapons agrees that the United States has a far larger nuclear force than it needs to deter attacks.
Last year, for example, when President Obama proposed reducing U.S. and Russian nuclear forces by about one-third to 1,100 warheads each, the Joint Chiefs of Staff embraced the idea. A year earlier, an independent panel convened by Global Zero, a disarmament group, concluded that 450 deployed warheads would be enough; one of its members was a retired senator named Chuck Hagel.
But since then, Hagel has been virtually mute about reducing nuclear arms. "If there was ever a time to start resetting this institution and restructuring … it's now," he said Tuesday as he pitched his budget to a roomful of defense experts. But when I asked him whether he still harbored the goal of shrinking the nuclear force, he ducked the question, saying his only goal was to leave the military stronger than he found it.
The reason officials don't like to talk about reducing nuclear arsenals is simple, and it applies in both Washington and Moscow: The weapons may have a diminishing role, but they are protected by political sponsors — sometimes based on honest disagreements over strategy, sometimes because of the jobs they provide.
When Hagel came before the Senate for confirmation last year, Republicans interrogated him about his signature on the Global Zero report; he retreated, saying the proposal was merely "illustrative" and that any nuclear reductions would need to be negotiated with Russia first.
Among his critics were senators from states where nuclear missiles are based: Wyoming, Montana and North Dakota.
It would be easier to argue for more nuclear cuts if Russia were eager to join in the reductions, but Putin rebuffed Obama's most recent proposal for another round of disarmament.
"The Russians seem to have glommed onto the idea that their status as a great power depends on their nuclear weapons," said Steven Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine who is now at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "It's also about jobs. There are a lot of one-factory towns in Russia producing military hardware, and they're part of Putin's political base."
Even so, Pifer notes, there are unilateral steps the administration could take to reduce the size and cost of the U.S. arsenal. For starters, some missile warheads could be taken off active duty, to match the Russians' lower number and meet the START treaty ceiling now. "It's a reversible step," Pifer noted. "It seems to me to be a no-brainer."
The costliest items, though, aren't the nuclear warheads but the vehicles that carry them: missiles, submarines and bombers. Over the next 20 years, the Pentagon plans to spend billions to modernize all three legs of that nuclear triad.
"A new submarine, a new penetrating bomber, a new ICBM — that pretty much breaks the bank," Pifer said.
Unless, that is, we decide to live with fewer vehicles.
Take nuclear submarines. Sometime after 2020, the Pentagon plans to replace all 12 of its subs that carry nuclear weapons at a cost that will probably exceed $6 billion a boat. But Pifer and others suggest we would be just as safe with eight or nine nuclear missile submarines.
Similar savings are available in the planned replacements for today's B-2 and B-52 bombers and the Minuteman III missiles in the silos of the High Plains.
It might even be possible to close one of the country's three nuclear missile bases, although closing any military base is politically thorny.
So why is Hagel's budget, for all its cost-cutting, silent on those issues?
"It's an argument we don't need to have this year," one Pentagon official told me. The cost of building those new subs, bombers and missiles won't balloon until 2020 or so. Until then, it's a problem both sides can ignore.
And what president wouldn't choose to avoid a nuclear war — even a rhetorical one with Congress — if he could?
email@example.com Twitter: @DoyleMcManus