War Stories

A Megaton of Waste

The White House’s new defense budget lavishes money on America’s nuclear weapons program in the name of competing with China and Russia. It’s totally unnecessary.

A mushroom cloud
We’re about to incinerate a lot of money. Reuters

President Joe Biden’s defense budget for 2023 is gargantuan. It comes to $813.3 billion, nearly $60 billion higher than the budget he requested a year ago for 2022. Just a few weeks ago, Congress passed a bill adding $25 billion to that earlier budget. Biden’s new budget, which he submitted on Monday, accepts the congressional hike as a baseline and raises the pot by another $32 billion.

To put this in perspective, Biden’s $813 billion exceeds President Donald Trump’s final defense budget by $75 billion—which, for a sense of proportion, is about 2.5 times what the government spends on Pell grants for low-income college students. It tops the amount that the Trump administration figured it would spend in 2023 by $40 billion.

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And yet congressional Republicans say that, given Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its threats to expand further, Biden’s new budget is much too small, and they’re set to throw in tens of billions of dollars more.

Does this make any sense? The world may be more dangerous than it seemed a few months, much less a few years, ago. But have its dangers grown so much in the past year that they warrant spending an extra $60 billion—and so much in the past few weeks that they demand $30 billion or $40 billion more? (For anyone wondering, these increases go beyond what’s necessary for the military budget to keep up with inflation.) Finally, does Biden’s budget spend this extra money in a way that actually deals with the growing threats from Russia or anyplace else?

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In other words, it is time to ask the vital question: How much do we really need to spend on defense?

It’s a question that remarkably few in official or congressional circles ask. Or, to the extent they do, their answer is always one word: more. They think that a dollar sign backed by a very high number sends a signal of our serious intent to our friends and foes. They focus on how much to spend—not on what to buy.

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Some of Biden’s budget hikes do go to counter the new Russian threat. For instance, it increases funding for the European Deterrence Initiative—a program that enables the movement of U.S. troops and equipment into NATO’s eastern nations, such as Poland, Romania, and the Baltics—from $3.7 billion to $6.9 billion.

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But that only accounts for about 5 percent of Biden’s $60 billion increase. What about the rest? Much of it will fund more combat planes and warships; research and development into 5G, A.I., and hypersonic missiles; and improvements in the communications tools that link commanders and their weapons. There are legitimate cases to be made for these upgrades, quite aside from Russia’s invasion and the subsequent anxieties of NATO allies on the western border of Ukraine.

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But the most visible, and surprising, share of Biden’s defense budget is the enormous sum for nuclear weapons—$50.9 billion, a 17 percent increase over this year’s (already considerable) $43.2 billion. About a third of this outlay is for the Energy Department’s nuclear complex—including its weapons labs, plutonium pits, and the production and testing of warheads and bombs. The other two-thirds, controlled by the Defense Department, goes to the major defense contractors.

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A debate has raged for years among defense analysts over whether to revamp all three “legs” of America’s “strategic nuclear triad”—the land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, nuclear-missile-carrying submarines, and long-range bomber aircraft. Some argue that all three elements of the arsenal are on the verge of obsolescence and need to be replaced. Others contend that, while this will be true for the submarines in the next decade or so, the missiles and bombers can be merely modified (as they have been a few times already); still others add that the land-based missiles should be eliminated or drastically reduced in number (say, from their current 400 to maybe 40). I’m among this last group.

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The Pentagon’s fact sheet on the budget makes clear that Biden has decided to replace all three legs and build a new long-range air-launched cruise missile, to boot. These new weapons, and their associated gear, consume $34.3 billion of his proposal—a 24 percent increase over what the administration devoted to them in this year’s budget. All of these new missiles, bombers, and submarines are in the research-and-development phase, meaning that, as they move into production, their costs will grow. In other words, starting in a few years, the budget for nuclear weapons will skyrocket.

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This decision is surprising because, in his years as senator and vice president, Biden was never enamored of the “nuclear priesthood.” As president, some of his appointments to key positions in the Pentagon, the State Department, and the National Security Council staff were equally skeptical specialists. Two things happened between Inauguration Day and now.

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First, Russia and China kept building new nuclear weapons (not more nuclear weapons, but upgrades to existing models). Some analysts argue that, objectively, this shouldn’t affect our decisions; as long as we’re able to carry out our nuclear war plans—as long as we can deter Russia and China from attacking us and, to some extent, limit damage if nuclear war breaks out anyway—no need for us to follow Russia’s or China’s wasteful practices. But politically, this is a hard argument to make, especially given the influence of a bipartisan group of legislators whose home districts manufacture missiles, bombers, or submarines.

Second, back when Biden was vice president, he and President Barack Obama got snookered by a particularly agile group of these legislators. In 2010, Obama needed two-thirds of the Senate to ratify the New START arms reduction treaty, which he had signed with Russia’s then-president, Dmitry Medvedev. Several senators threatened not to ratify unless Obama spent more on the nuclear stockpile and agreed to build new missiles, bombers, and submarines. Hawks have pulled this ploy ever since the first U.S.-Soviet arms control treaty back in 1972. Almost every new American nuclear weapon since then has been funded as a bribe for ratification or as a “bargaining chip” for future arms negotiations—except that, once nuclear weapons enter production, they’re almost never bargained away.

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Obama tried to be clever under this pressure, pledging to “modernize or replace” all three legs of the triad. He did not regard this as a promise to buy any new weapons. To “modernize” a missile could mean upgrading its software or installing new communications gear.

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But in response, the congressional critics rolled out a grand list of new weapons, which carried a 30-year price tag of $1.3 trillion (it has since grown), and claimed that Obama had signed on to the whole package as part of the deal to ratify New START. When Trump was elected, key Pentagon officials—some of whom had worked for Senate Republicans—labeled this package as “the Obama plan of record.” The message was clear: Obama (who was viewed by Republicans and several centrist Democrats as a weak-on-defense dove) approved these weapons; therefore, you’re an even weaker-on-defense dove if you try to cancel them.

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And so from that point on, these weapons—which won’t be fielded for several years—have been presented as part of the U.S. arsenal’s status quo. To oppose their funding is seen as an act not of restraint but of unilateral disarmament.

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Last year, Biden raised defense spending and retained the plan to build new nukes, in part because he needed a few moderates to support his extravagant domestic spending plan—and he wouldn’t get them unless he supported extravagant Pentagon spending. Now this year, as the political mood has shifted and as midterms loom ahead, Biden has scaled back his domestic ambitions even while pushing the defense budget upward and onward.

And what will we get for this massive military spending binge? Mostly theater. Nobody has come up with a persuasive scenario in which the U.S., armed with its current nuclear arsenal, is unable to deter Russia or China (or North Korea or some other foe) from aggression, but would be able to deter them, if we only had all these new missiles, bombers, and submarines now.

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The war in Ukraine illustrates the point. Biden (properly) refuses to send U.S. troops or pilots into the battle directly, for fear that Russia would see such intervention as an existential threat and respond with nuclear weapons. Some think Biden is excessively cautious. But none of his critics has claimed that we could gain the upper hand over Russia—that we could intervene and stare down Putin’s threat to respond with nukes—if only we had all these new missiles and bombers and submarines today.

The course of the war in Ukraine calls into question the broader claim that we need to spend a lot more money on defense in order to counter Russia’s new threat in Europe. Russia’s military is doing poorly against Ukraine’s army and civilian resistance forces. Russian tanks are running out of fuel and food as Ukrainians cut their supply lines; these same tanks and other vehicles are getting blown up by easy-to-operate anti-tank missiles that cost not millions but thousands of dollars apiece; Russian planes and helicopters are getting shot out of the sky by similarly inexpensive, shoulder-fired Stinger missiles.

Yes, NATO’s new Eastern European front lines need to be strengthened, because they were barely manned at all before Putin’s move against Ukraine. But do they need to be strengthened so much? It may be smarter—and would certainly be cheaper—to rethink what we need for defense before we start spending a lot more money in the same old ways. We’ve overrated Russia’s military power; let’s not underrate our own.

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