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Opinion

How Obama can slash defense budget: Cut unnecessary nuclear weapons programs

In order to reach its goal of at least $480 billion in Pentagon savings over the next decade, the Obama administration must scale back previous schemes for a new generation of strategic nuclear weapons delivery systems.

By Daryl G. Kimball and Tom Z. Collina / January 19, 2012

Cmdr. Andrew Peterson stands by the USS Oklahoma City during the super high-tech submarine's port call in Yokohama near Tokyo in November 2011. The Navy has been seeking 12 new nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines for a total cost of almost $350 billion. Yet the Obama administration has laid out a goal of finding $480 billion in Pentagon savings over the next 10 years. Some suggest cutting nuclear weapons programs.

AP Photo/Eric Talmadge/File

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Earlier this month, President Obama and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta outlined a more streamlined and affordable defense strategy that envisions a more limited role and smaller budget for US nuclear weapons.

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While they were short on specifics, it is clear that in order to reach the administration’s goal of at least $480 billion in Pentagon savings over the next decade, previous schemes for a new generation of strategic nuclear weapons delivery systems must be scaled back.

The Navy has been seeking 12 new nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines to carry more than 1,000 nuclear warheads into the 2070s, at a total cost of almost $350 billion. The Air Force has sought a new, nuclear-armed strategic bomber that would cost at least $68 billion, as well as a new fleet of land-based ballistic missiles.

In July, then-Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. James Cartwright explained that “… we have to recapitalize all three legs [of the nuclear triad], and we don’t have the money to do it.”

But as the new defense strategy correctly asserts, “It is possible that our deterrence goals can be achieved with a smaller nuclear force...”

Such adjustments are long overdue. Today, more than 20 years after the end of the Cold War, US and Russian nuclear arsenals still exceed what is reasonably necessary to deter nuclear attack. The United States deploys 1,790 strategic warheads, while Russia deploys 1,560 strategic warheads. Each side possesses thousands more warheads in storage.

No other nuclear-armed country deploys more than 300 strategic warheads; China has no more than 40 to 50 warheads on intercontinental-range missiles. Just one US nuclear-armed submarine could devastate an entire nation and kill millions.

Rather than maintaining obsolete arsenals that they neither need nor can afford, leaders in Washington and Moscow could pursue further, reciprocal reductions in their overall strategic nuclear forces – to 1,000 warheads or fewer each – and still retain more than enough megatonnage to deter nuclear attack by any current or future adversary.

There are three key ways in which the president and the Congress can trim at least $45 billion from strategic nuclear force modernization programs over the next 10 years.

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