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The Navy's nuclear ballistic submarine USS Maine conducts surface navigational operations about 50 miles south of Puerto Rico. (U.S. Navy photo)

Obama Backing Away From Nuclear Modernization

Rebeccah L. Heinrichs

On the heels of President Obama’s regrettable speech at Hiroshima, White House official Ben Rhodes, of “echo chamber” infamy, doubled down on the president’s commitment to the nuclear disarmament agenda Obama laid out in Prague early in his first term. Specifically, Rhodes revealed that the Obama administration is considering reneging on its commitment to modernize the nuclear deterrent.

“I can promise you today that President Obama is continuing to review a number of ways he can advance the Prague agenda over the course of the next seven months. Put simply, our work is not finished on these issues,” Rhodes said at a recent Arms Control Association event.

He went on to say after the speech that the current plans (which have wide bipartisan congressional support) to modernize all three legs of the nuclear triad were conceived under a different set of circumstances. “We recognize that the plan was developed at a different time when we, number 1, anticipated a different budgetary picture going forward, particularly with respect to our defense budget,” he said.

We know from Rhodes’s interview in the New York Times Magazine that his conscience is not pricked when he makes statements that are utterly divorced from reality, even when it comes to matters related to other countries’ nuclear weapons programs. Evidently the same goes for America’s nuclear weapons program. Nobody should be fooled by arguments to cut funding for nuclear updates as primarily a matter of affordability.

According to the latest Congressional Budget Office figures, the price tag for modernizing the U.S. nuclear deterrent is $348 billion over the next decade. The President’s request for this year’s National Defense Authorization Act, which includes funding for nuclear modernization in the Department of Energy and Department of Defense accounts, is $602.2 billion. This puts nuclear modernization at less than 6 percent of the defense bill. And lest one thinks we spend too much on the entire national defense enterprise, the United States spends less than 3.5 percent on national defense as a fraction of GDP.

Hard to wrap your mind around those numbers? For a more vivid picture, Lt. Gen Stephen Wilson, commander of the U.S. Air Force Global Strike Command, remarked last year, “…CBS Marketwatch reported that Easter sales this year were at a record, $16.4 billion in Easter sales. And so we spend more money as Americans on Cadbury eggs and jellybeans, than we do on modernizing our nuclear triad.” Got that? We spend more on Cadbury eggs and jellybeans than we do on the weapons to prevent large-scale war. Let that sink in.

Wilson is not the only person working for the president who has defended the necessity and affordability of U.S. nuclear weapons upkeep and upgrades.

Then-deputy defense secretary Ash Carter said during an interview in July 2013,

You may all be surprised to know that nuclear weapons don't actually cost that much. Our—our annual spending for nuclear delivery systems is about $12 billion a year. This is out of around $525 billion, our budget, coming down. And another $4 billion-ish for the command-and-control system that goes with the nuclear weapons, the radar upper, warning, the special communications to make sure that we could—the president could retaliate under any circumstances, especially if we're attacked first, and all that, another $4 billion. So that takes you up to about $16 billion.

And so it is not a big swinger of the budget. You don't save a lot of money by having arms control and so forth. But the reason you do it is because these things -- though they don't cost that much—are the most awesome and terrible inventions of humankind. And, you know, I'm a physicist, as you mentioned, and we in the—physicists always felt that there was some responsibility that went with having created this technology. And so they are things always to remember are—are part of our arsenal that deserves our most careful thought and treatment and responsibility. But they're not the answer to our budget problem. They're just not that expensive.

He got into a bit of hot water with the arms control folks for making light of the cost, which prompted another Obama administration defense official, Madelyn Creedon, to pile on. She penned an article shortly after Carter’s comments that put the cost in context: “For about the cost of an aircraft carrier, DOD carries out a mission that protects the U.S. from nuclear attack, aggression, and coercion from our adversaries; contributes to strategic stability with Russia and China; and assures allies in Europe and Asia that might otherwise be vulnerable to nuclear threats or enticed to develop their own nuclear capabilities. Put another way, the value of the U.S. nuclear deterrent warrants its cost.”

Not only are plans to modernize the nuclear force affordable, a quick scan at the security environment should demonstrate it is simply necessary. For example, take Russia, which is in the middle of a massive nuclear modernization program of its own. Russia has flown nuclear-capable aircraft into U.S. and ally airspace, its leaders threaten to preemptively attack peaceful defensive systems, and U.S. officials are worried Moscow has changed its military doctrine to one that is allows for the use of nuclear weapons against purely non-nuclear conflicts. Let us not forget Russia has also invaded a sovereign nation, undermined U.S. (pitifully modest) efforts in Syria in order to prop up Bashar al-Assad, and remains in violation of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty.

I don’t know if the president has noticed, but America needs a more convincing threat of force, and greater credibility regarding nuclear deterrence, if we are to avoid war and preserve peace.

The Russians have pushed and pushed, and where they are not met with resistance, we should expect them to keep on pushing.

All of this talk of possibly weakening the U.S. nuclear deterrent is made even more audacious by a portion of the Obama administration’s “Statement of Administration Policy” on the Senate version of the National Defense Authorization Act. The bill being considered by the Senate strikes the word “limited” from the 1999 National Missile Defense Act. The current law states:

It is the policy of the United States to deploy as soon as is technologically possible an effective National Missile Defense system capable of defending the territory of the United States against limited ballistic missile attack (whether accidental, unauthorized, or deliberate) with funding subject to the annual authorization of appropriations and the annual appropriation of funds for National Missile Defense.

President George W. Bush withdrew the United States from the Cold War Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which paved the way for the United States to finally build a robust missile defense system. The U.S. has improved the technology for missile defense, and in an era in which countries like Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran are developing missile arsenals to target the U.S., it makes zero sense to intentionally keep the system only designed to defend against some missiles but not others. By striking the word “limited” it powerfully demonstrates that the Congress is ready to forward with improving the ballistic missile defense system by increasing the inventory of interceptors and also by making qualitative improvements such as placing an interceptor layer in space. Doing so would greatly enhance American security.

This is not the way the Obama administration sees it. It prefers the Cold War concept of mutually assured destruction. In its statement on NDAA policy, the administration said:

The Administration appreciates the Committee's continued support for the Nation's ballistic missile defense programs. However, the Administration strongly objects to section 1665, which would amend section 2 of the National Missile Defense Act of 1999 (Public Law 106-38; 10 U.S.C. § 2431) by striking 'limited.' The inclusion of this word is specifically intended to convey that the U.S. homeland missile defense system is designed and deployed to counter limited attacks (in number and sophistication) from Iran and North Korea, and not to counter the strategic deterrence forces of Russia and China. The Administration continues to believe that the most reliable and effective means to deter major nuclear powers from ever contemplating an attack on the United States is by maintaining a modern and robust strategic nuclear deterrent force.

So by their lights, we should intentionally keep American neighborhoods totally vulnerable to Russian and Chinese missiles and instead focus on maintaining a robust strategic nuclear deterrent force. Except Ben Rhodes just reiterated the president’s commitment to his anti-nuclear ideology and claimed the country can’t really afford what it takes to maintain a modern nuclear force anyway.

We are at a high-stakes decision point. So far, Hillary Clinton has indicated she thinks the cost for nuclear modernization doesn’t make sense. Donald Trump hasn’t said either way. Regardless, the next administration could inherit a strategic posture in need of a serious makeover, and it better get to it sooner rather than later.

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