How to Save $250 Billion: Axe “Missile Defense”

missilesIn the midst of the current stampede to slash federal spending, Congress might want to take a look at two unnecessary (and dangerous) “national security” programs that, if cut, would save the United States over a quarter of a trillion dollars over the next decade.

The first of these is the Obama administration’s plan to spend at least $185 billion in the next ten years to “modernize” the U.S. government’s nuclear weapons arsenal.  At present, the U.S. government possesses approximately 8,500 nuclear warheads, and it is hard to imagine that this country would be safer from attack if it built more nuclear weapons or “improved” those it already possesses.  Indeed, President Barack Obama has declared—both on the 2008 campaign trail and as president—that he is committed to building a world without nuclear weapons.  This seems like a perfectly sensible position—one favored by most nations and, as polls show, most people (including most people in the United States).  Therefore, the administration should be working on securing further disarmament agreements—not on upgrading the U.S. nuclear arsenal in preparation for future nuclear confrontations and nuclear wars.

In late June of this year, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, wrote:  “It is deeply troubling that the U.S. has allocated $185 billion to augment its nuclear stockpile over the next decade, on top of the ordinary annual nuclear-weapons budget of more than $50 billion.”  Not only has the International Court of Justice affirmed that nations “are legally obliged to negotiate in good faith for the complete elimination of their nuclear forces,” but “every dollar invested in bolstering a country’s nuclear arsenal is a diversion of resources from its schools, hospitals, and other social services, and a theft from the millions around the globe who go hungry or are denied access to basic medicines.”  He concluded:  “Instead of investing in weapons of mass annihilation, governments must allocate resources towards meeting human needs.”

Another project worth eliminating is the national missile defense program.  Thanks to recent congressional generosity, this Reagan-era carryover, once derided by U.S. Senator Edward Kennedy as “Star Wars,” is currently slated for an increase in federal spending, which will provide it with $8.6 billion in fiscal 2012.

The vast and expensive missile defense program—costing about $150 billion since its inception—has thus far produced remarkably meager results.  Indeed, no one knows whether it will work.  As an investigative article in Bloomberg News recently reported:  “It has never been tested under conditions simulating a real attack by an intercontinental ballistic missile deploying sophisticated decoys and countermeasures.  The system has flunked 7 of 15 more limited trials, yet remains exempted from normal Pentagon oversight.”

Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, reported that his committee was “deeply concerned” about the test failures of the nation’s missile defense program.  He also implied that, given the disappearance of the Soviet Union, the United States might not need such a system to deter its potential enemies, which have a far inferior missile capability.  “The threat we have now is either a distant threat or is not a realistic threat,” he remarked.

Why, then, do other nations—for example, Russia—fiercely object to the deployment of a U.S. missile defense system near their borders?  Perhaps they fear that, somehow, U.S. scientists and engineers will finally figure out how to build a system, often likened to hitting a bullet with a bullet, that makes the United States invulnerable while they are left vulnerable.  Or perhaps they think that, one day, some U.S. government officials might believe that the United States actually is invulnerable and launch a first strike against their own nations.  In any case, their favorite solution to the problem posed by U.S. national missile defense—building more nuclear-tipped missiles of their own—significantly undermines the security of the United States.

lawrence wittnerProjecting the current annual cost of this program over the next decade, the United States would save $86 billion by eliminating it.

Thus, by scrapping plans for nuclear weapons “modernization” and for national missile defense—programs that are both useless and provocative—the United States would save $271 billion (well over a quarter of a trillion dollars) in the next ten years.  Whether used to balance the budget or to fund programs for jobs, healthcare, education, and the environment, this money would go a long way toward resolving some of the nation’s current problems.

Lawrence S. Wittner

Lawrence Wittner is Professor of History emeritus at the State University of New York/Albany. His latest book is Confronting the Bomb: A Short History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement (Stanford University Press).

Republished with permission from History News Network.


  1. Tyrannus Evisceratus says

    And what about all the Raytheon and Lockheed Martin employees that would lose their jobs? When you cut defense it costs jobs. Something Obama can’t afford politically.

  2. says

    Concerning aging nuke weapons commenter In_awe makes a valid qualitative point, but it doesn’t prove that the proposed quantitative scale and cost of modernization is a good idea.

    Even less does In_awe provide any evidence against pursuing the various civilian technology programs that he idiotically damns as unpromising and unsuccessful ideas. For instance, electric vehicles, battery and solar technology have in fact advanced considerably in recent years, are already the technologies of choice in special situations, and have come close to taking off in massive use, especially when oil prices next spike or when oil subsidies are canceled.

    As for missile defense, Wittner is correct in that generically the idea is obviously problematic – indeed like shooting bullets with bullets. But up to a point a limited carefully positioned local missile defense may make a difference in some marginal short-term cases – where defenders (US, Israel, S. Arabia, S. Korea, Japan, etc.) face a crazed regime – e.g. Iran, N Korea – of so-far-limited missile-launch capability.

    This latter situation is now in prospect, mainly because of the costly failure and hypocrisy of the two OBushma presidents. On the matter of acting to keep nukes and missiles out of the hands of rogue tyrant regimes, they both talked the talk but refused to walk the walk – which would require but a fraction of the risk and effort and time involved in either Iraq or Afghanistan. Indeed Obama has these resorted to various delaying and diversionary tactics (e.g. elaborate but scarcely effectual sanctions) and arm-twisting to prevent the US military and capable allies from acting.

  3. in_awe says

    The author fails to accept the reality that nuclear weapons deteriorate as they age and must be upgraded or replaced to maintain the nuclear deterrence we now have. To not modernize is to unilaterally disarm while our likely adversaries do not ascribe to their own disarmament as their national policy.

    One only needs to read current reports of the expansion of the Chinese military to recognize that it is gearing up to leverage its military might to take over the South China Sea and establish strategic and tactical dominance over the sea lanes through which 60% of all world trade currently travel. The feuds China is precipitating over the Sprattley Islands and other islands in the South China Sea are based on aggressive economic goals (oil and seabed mineral deposits) and power projection.

    The Chinese have fielded ballistic anti-ship weapons in the last year and for the first time in 50 years our carrier groups are vulnerable to missile attack for which we have no weapons to counter. The Chinese are pressing harder and harder to deter US Navy passage through the Taiwan Straits and this new weapon would ensure substantial American losses in a conflict. The Chinese just sent their first aircraft carrier out for sea trials and announced the future construction of highly capable additional carriers.

    The Chinese have demonstrated their own Star Wars capability by vaporizing an orbiting satellite. Our security and military effectiveness is inexorably tied to our constellations of satellites – GPS based weapons, command and control, inter-unit communications, etc. all rely on satellites to perform. Having a credible defense against Chinese space attacks and a credible retaliatory capability is crucial.

    Then we could turn our eyes to other potential threats from states like Russia, Iran, and North Korea.

    The use of the International Criminal Court and Desmond Tutu as a basis for argument is laughable. Why not refer to Wiley Coyote, too? His comments would have as much relevance.

    If you are looking for places to save money let’s start by shutting down the black hole known as the Department of Education that has failed massively at everything except spending outrageous amounts of money to NO EFFECT. That would save $750Billion over 10 years – that’s three quarters of a Trillion dollars! Wow! And our nation’s security would not be placed at risk. Then we could kill the addled brained commitment to building high speed rail. Right now that would free up $55Billion without breaking a sweat and save half a trillion dollars over a decade of make work unfeasible projects.

    If we should cancel any development project for new technology then we should immediate shutter all facilities working on large scale batteries for vehicles, electric vehicles in general, solar panels, tidal energy generation, etc., etc. All of which have failed time after time for the past 40, 50, 60 years.

    So, in just a few paragraphs we have seen how to easily save over $1Trillion without weakening our security. Let’s roll!

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