US report urges Obama to spend more on nuke threat reduction and the environment, less on atomic saber rattling


Publish date: January 13, 2009

Written by: Charles Digges

The release Monday of an independent assessment of US nuclear security spending written for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has sparked debate over how much the incoming Obama administration should spend on atomic weapons – and how much it should spend on continuing nonproliferation efforts and the environment.

The report comes down squarely in favor of advancing budgets for nonproliferation and nuclear threat reduction efforts, and underscores that the tens of billions of dollars that Washington spends on weaponry and missile defence systems would be better allocated to under-funded threat reduction efforts, diplomacy, science, technology and the environment.

Commentators on the report suggested that US expenditures on research and development for pie-in-the-sky missile defence programmes far outweigh cheaper and more diplomatically feasible threat reduction agreements that have faltered at the hands of the Bush administration’s approach of naked power.

The new report – written by Stephen Schwartz, editor of the Nonproliferation Review and Deepti Choubey, deputy director of Carnegie’s Nonproliferation Programme – presents an aggregate view of $52.4 billion in unclassified nuclear weapon-related expenditures across the fiscal 2008 federal budget.

The figure includes funds spent by the Defense, Energy, State and Homeland Security departments for a wide range programs in five categories: $29 billion for nuclear forces and operational support; $9.2 billion for missile defense; $8.3 billion for deferred environmental and health costs; $5.2 billion for nuclear threat reduction; and $700 million for nuclear incident management.

Using these figures as a starting point, the report’s authors recommend that President-elect Barack Obama recast his upcoming nuclear weapons budget priorities to focus on nonproliferation and eliminating nuclear threats – efforts that currently account for only one tenth of total US nuclear spending under the outgoing Bush administration.

"Greater fiscal and programmatic emphasis should be placed on programs that seek to secure and prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons, weapons materials and technical knowledge, and to eliminate threats posed by such weapons, materials and knowledge," Schwartz and Choubey wrote in their report.

A member of Obama’s transition team who is familiar with the development of the new administration’s nuclear policy told Bellona Web that the new report “is among a number of outlooks that we will be considering.”

“Shifting focus from (nuclear) weapons, of which there are plenty, to reducing their pervasiveness is one of our central goals here,’ said the official speaking on the condition of anonymity as he is not authorized to discuss the policies publicly.

“Obama has vast experience with Nunn-Lugar and other cooperative threat reduction efforts from serving with (Senator Richard) Luger on the foreign relations committee, and though verification can be tough, he sees that these efforts are working,”

CTR efforts doing well on shoestring budget-but should get more funding
Efforts by the Defense, Energy and State departments to secure and eliminate nuclear weapons and materials in the former Soviet Union and elsewhere around the globe "have a demonstrated record of success, are proactive, are more cost-effective than technology-driven efforts such as missile defenses," the report said.

"There is a clear imbalance between the amount of money the US is spending to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons into the hands of terrorists and the amount we spend on our existing arsenal," John Isaacs, executive director of the Council for a Livable World told the Global Security Newswire in an interview.

"Almost two decades after the end of the Cold War, the United States, along with Russia, can dramatically reduce their nuclear weapons stockpiles and ultimately save money – money that could be used in part to prevent nuclear terrorism."

Overall, the more than $52 billion spent in the nuclear weapons arena surpassed the dollars made available for several other national priorities, such as international relations, the environment, or science and technology, according to the new report.

For example, "the 2008 nuclear weapons and weapons-related ‘budget’ exceeds all anticipated government expenditures on international diplomacy and foreign assistance," which totaled $39.5 billion, according to the report.

Report stops short of recommending policy shifts

"This exercise today  – and what we’re calling for the government to do – is not about singling out peogrammes for intense criticism or tremendous praise," Schwartz told attendees a Carnegie event held Monday to debut the report, GSN reported.

"That will happen regardless. That’s just going to be a natural outgrowth of this."

US Military circles take umbrage at report

The Carnegie-sponsored report is drawing fire from some quarters for basing its analysis on budget figures, instead of focusing on the value offered by the various facets of the US nuclear programme in preventing proliferation or war.

"The report sets up a false dichotomy between spending on nuclear forces and spending on other priorities like diplomacy, foreign assistance and energy research, suggesting that US priorities are out of balance," David Trachtenberg, a former Pentagon official during the Bush administration, told GSN.

"Yet it is silent on how shifting the balance from spending on nuclear forces to these other programs would be more effective in preventing nuclear attack, which, after all, is a major reason we have a nuclear arsenal in the first place."

In this view – also articulated by Defense Secretary Robert Gates in an October policy speech — maintaining a viable nuclear arsenal is a crucial aspect of preventing attacks against the United States. A well-maintained and modern nuclear force also helps "extend" deterrence to US allies, making it unnecessary for nations like South Korea or Japan to develop their own atomic weapons, according to this perspective.

Trachtenberg also criticized the report authors for taking a "political" approach to their analysis by omitting reference to legitimate debate over various alternatives for preventing nuclear attacks most effectively.

"Numbers don’t always tell the whole story and the cost of a programme doesn’t always equate to its value," he said. "By comparing apples to oranges and without providing useful context, a reader of this report could come away with the misinformed and erroneous impression that the U.S. is more interested in fighting a nuclear war than in preventing one."

Small arsenals also a deterrent

Other nuclear arms experts said the United States could spend less on operating and maintaining its arsenal and still preserve a strong and credible deterrent.

"The U.S. should be able to spend half as much within a few years to maintain a minimum deterrent force of 1,000 nuclear weapons or even fewer," Isaacs said.

"The Chinese have proved that a very small nuclear force [of] about two dozen nuclear weapons serves as an effective deterrent force against both Russia and the United States," he added. "The United States has something to learn from the Chinese on this issue."

The United States has an estimated 5,200 nuclear weapons, 2,800 of which have global range and stand ready to launch, according to Hans Kristensen, who directs the Federation of American Scientists’ Nuclear Information Project. He served on the Carnegie report’s 15-member advisory committee.

Isaacs said the report places "a huge bull’s-eye on nuclear weapons for the Obama administration and Congress, which are desperately looking for funds for other programs."

"The point is to have effective oversight, which we can’t do right now" because the government does not review nuclear spending as a whole, Schwartz said. "If there was ever a time to start doing it, it’s now. The United States doesn’t have unlimited resources."

The Carnegie report recommends that Congress pass legislation requiring that the executive branch compile and submit to Capitol Hill a classified and unclassified accounting of its nuclear weapons-related expenditures for the prior, current and next fiscal years.

In addition, the White House should oversee a process to devise nuclear spending projections for the next five to six years as part of its Future Years Defense Programme, the authors suggested.

"If we had this on an ongoing basis, you could begin to track" nuclear sector expenditures, Schwartz said. "You could see it going up or down. And you could have metrics and say, ‘OK, well, we spent this much this year. Here’s what we achieved.’ … But we have no way of doing that now because there aren’t any numbers on an ongoing basis to be able to compare things with."

Within the overall nuclear weapons budget, a rebalanced investment could more effectively prevent nuclear war in the long term, according to national security analyst Micah Zenko. He echoed the Carnegie report’s central recommendation that funds for missile defense be shifted into securing or eliminating weapons of mass destruction abroad.

In an e-mail interview with Bellona Web Monday, Zenko cited a CIA finding that a WMD attack against the United States is more likely to be delivered by "nonmissile" means – such as container ships, automobiles or aircraft – than by missiles.

"The U.S. spends almost twice as much per year on R&D (research and development) of untested missile defenses as it does on efforts to reduce the risk of nuclear terrorism," said Zenko, a former research associate at Harvard University’s Project on Managing the Atom.

"More funding across the range of U.S. programmes responsible for securing fissile material, nuclear weapons and weapons-related components would help."