By Heather Hurlburt
The Obama administration’s 2014 defense budget, with its proposal to cut $460m from nuclear non-proliferation activities and use that money to pay for new features on its B61 tactical nuclear bombs, has sparked heated debate. Is the modernization desperately needed or irrelevant goldplating? Is the administration undercutting its own non-proliferation agenda for domestic politics, or making a smart investment in the deterrent of the future?
Unfortunately, by and large, these are the wrong questions. The right questions are these: how do those bombs fit into US national security strategy; and wherever it is that they fit, is their cost proportionate to their benefits?
Analysts from across the political spectrum have proposed variations on a “strategic reshaping” for the Pentagon as a whole, insisting that strategic goals and priorities should drive funding choices in a tough fiscal environment. This is a great talking point, but difficult to carry out in practice – when every prioritization has military consequences; international political consequences; domestic political consequences; and financial consequences.
Nuclear weapons are a particularly vivid example. A prestigious and bipartisan movement of senior military and government officials – the much-maligned Global Zero – has called for their role in US national security to be downsized and eventually eliminated. But the political backlash to the idea has prevented robust debate on how that might happen, what US interim nuclear postures should be, and how the deterrence concerns of US allies – especially when those allies oppose the idea of US denuclearization – should be managed.
At the same time, a vociferous minority of GOP senators and House representatives has called for more investment in nuclear weapons – but again, without any specifics about what newer, more sophisticated nuclear weapons would do. This has led some commentators to allege that the Obama administration is just spending on nuclear weapons for political reasons.
But let’s stop and consider, first, what role do these tactical weapons serve now?
B61 bombs sit at the airbases of five Nato allies, where analyst Jeffrey Lewis quotes a senior Nato official saying of the weapons, “they have no military value.” Yet, they do fulfil what Lewis calls “political needs”, demonstrating European allies’ commitment to remaining a nuclear alliance, providing all allies nuclear deterrence, and sharing the cost with the United States. For some allies – those with a border with Russia or historical anxieties about Moscow’s intentions and its own large tactical nuclear arsenal – those political needs are very real.
Outside Europe, where all four nuclear powers are downsizing, the picture on tactical weapons looks different. India is moving to develop a full nuclear “triad” of bombers, missiles and submarines. Pakistan is aggressively developing new tactical weapons and will soon pass France in the total size of its arsenal. China, too, seems to be working to modernize and develop its arsenal; so, as we all know, is North Korea. In response, public support for nuclear weapons development is rising in South Korea.
Russia, which, with the US, still possesses 90% of all nuclear weapons, maintains a stock of tactical weapons almost three times as large as the US. It is believed by some observers to have developed lower-yield tactical weapons (less fallout and collateral damage) and to be changing its doctrine to be more willing to use them.
Experts and advocates heatedly debate whether these developments imply that Washington should lead by example and cut its arsenal, or stand pat as a signal of US determination not to allow any rival to challenge Washington’s nuclear capacities or its deterrence umbrella. The fact is, though, that it’s hard to discern any signal either way from a funding change that amounts to one-tenth of 1% of the Pentagon’s base budget for next year.
Advocates of heightened nuclear spending – who argue, for example, that the US keeping its spending up will help deter China from trying to match our arsenal – shouldn’t get excited. If spending one-tenth of 1% of our base budget deterred China, that country would not have acquired an aircraft carrier, early stealth technology, or other military updates in fields where Washington exponentially outspends Beijing.
At the same time, nuclear bombs with new technological capabilities and a broader range of possible uses make it very hard to argue that Washington is leading by example in reducing the weapons’ role. That perhaps sets up the Obama administration’s agenda for difficulties down the line.
But there’s a more basic problem that both sides of the nuclear debate should be able to agree on. It seems odd to contemplate better nuclear bombs being designed by furloughed scientists and delivered by pilots who, right now, thanks to sequester, can’t get enough flight hours. Last July, the Defense Department predicted the whole modernization program would cost $10.4bn. When no one on either side of the debate can state clearly what strategic purpose the refitted bombs would serve, surely we could spend the money on furloughed employees, or naval vessels, or tax cuts, or education, instead?