Obama's A-bomb Budget:
At The Hague, Obama Decries the Nuclear Threat;
At Home His New Budget Stokes the Atomic Furnace
Returning from a two-day Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) in The Hague, President Barack Obama claimed to have achieved a "fundamental shift" in the global campaign to rein-in the nuclear threat. And what was this prized accomplishment? Had the United States and the world's other eight nuclear powers agreed to accelerate the languishing nuclear disarmament process? Not really. (According to a Ploughshares Fund estimate, the US still maintains around 7,700 nuclear warheads against Russia's 8,500 while Britain, China, France, India, Israel, North Korea and Pakistan account for another 1,095 or so. An estimated 4,650 of Washington's nuclear warheads are assigned to 800 "launch-ready" ballistic missiles: the remainder are "retired" or "stored.")
Rather than address the 17,000-19,000 warheads in the hands of the world's eight nuclear-armed nations – an arsenal of hundreds of ballistic missiles and thousands of strategic nuclear warheads in launch-ready status and on hair-trigger alert --, the Summit's focus was on the theoretical threat of future acts of nuclear terrorism by so-called "non-state actors."
The NSS's main achievement was an agreement – signed by only 35 of the 53 participating nations -- to turn existing "guidelines" on nuclear security into binding national legislation. The 35 like-minded nations also promised to "open up their security procedures" in an effort to "thwart nuclear terrorism."
Towards this end, the Associated Press reports, many of the Summit's nations have "pledged to step up efforts to prevent trafficking of nuclear material, boost maritime security and to develop low-enriched uranium for research reactors instead of the highly enriched, weapons-grade nuclear fuel currently widely used."
At the closing press conference on March 25, President Obama declared these meager steps to be "essential to the security of the entire world. Given the catastrophic consequences of even a single attack, we cannot be complacent."
To be clear, Obama was not talking about the "catastrophic consequences" of the use of atomic weapons by the eight nuclear-armed states that already possess arsenals of bombs and, in some cases, missile-deliverable nuclear warheads. Rather, the focus of the NSS was on finding ways to insure that nuclear materials and weapons technologies don't "fall into the hands of terrorists."
Yet even this seemingly lofty goal failed to stir unanimous support. Only two thirds of the participating nations -- including Britain, Canada, France, Israel, Japan and the US -- endorsed the plan. China, India, Pakistan and Russia refused to sign the proposal. (According to the Associated Press, "North Korea and Iran didn't even attend," suggesting that these countries had stubbornly set themselves apart from the global community. In other dispatches, however, the AP noted these two countries were "excluded by mutual consent.")
Clearly, there are some signs of progress since the first summit was convened four years ago. In 2010, 39 nations possessed sufficient material to build nuclear weapons. Today, the number of weapons-capable nations has decreased to 25. In addition, the governments of Japan, Italy and Belgium have all pledged to make additional cuts in their stockpiles of plutonium and enriched uranium.
Unfortunately, while Obama was deploying rhetorical flourishes at the closing ceremonies in Brussels, back home in Washington, a review of the administration's Fiscal Year 2015 budget revealed that the US continues to be the planet's most prolific proponent of nuclear weapons. But the news gets worse. Obama's proposed FY 2015 budget would put the US on a course to building a new and even more destructive atomic arsenal.
Obama's A-Bomb BudgetThis is a far cry from Mr. Obama's April 2009 Address in Prague where he famously called for "a world free of nuclear weapons." On that occasion, the new American president declared: "If we believe that the spread of nuclear weapons is inevitable, then in some way we are admitting to ourselves that the use of nuclear weapons is inevitable." And then he added (to a round of thunderous applause): "I state, clearly and with conviction, America's commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons."
Today, however, and in the years ahead, the Obama White House has committed itself to expanding – not reducing -- the country's arsenal of atomic weapons. Obama's federal budget – due, by law, on the first Monday of February but actually released on March 4 -- calls for a 7% increase in nuclear weapons research and development. The design and production of new nuclear devices under the aegis of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) is now projected to account for $8.3 billion in spending in FY 2015 while rising to $9.7 billion by FY 2019 -- an increase of 24% over current spending levels. If passed, this budget request for nuclear weapons spending would break every record to date -- even topping the amount of money lavished on these apocalyptic weapons in 1985 during the peak of President Ronald Reagan's military build-up binge.
Under Obama's budget proposal, funding the NNSA's so-called "directed stockpile work" would be increased 12.5% to $305 million. Most of this treasure would be spent on "Life Extension Programs" (LEPs) designed to increase the "longevity" of the B-61 nuclear bomb – a series of five thermonuclear "gravity bombs" that are anywhere from four to 20 times more powerful than the 15-kiloton bomb dropped on Hiroshima. As critics at the Ploughshares Fund have pointed out, each of these 700-pound bombs -- costing more than $26 million each – would be literally worth "more than their weight in gold". Obama's budget sets aside $634 million for this program in FY 2015-- an increase of 20%. (The total estimated cost for the LEP program initially was set at $4 billion but it has now surpassed $10 billion.)
The LEP program will not just extend the life of this death-dealing technology, it will also provide a "make-over" for the B-61. The goal is to turn the B-61 from an analog bomb into a digital bomb that can be used on the F-35 "Joint Strike Fighter" – an over-budget, overdue, over-weight, and technologically flawed project that eventually could cost taxpayers as much as $1 trillion.
The president's budget would give the Pentagon an additional $1.8 billion to fit 800 B-61s with a Tail Kit Assembly (provided by Boeing) that will give the world its first "nuclear smart bomb."
Obama's proposed A-bomb Budget would allow the Pentagon and Department of Energy to replace existing B-61 designs with a new B-61-12 model that Hans Kristensen, of the Federation of American Scientists, has called an "all-in-one nuclear bomb on steroids."
These costly budget items are wholly out of sync with global nuclear nonproliferation treaties that prohibit United States and other signatory countries from designing and building "new and improved" types of nuclear weapons. The NNSA, for its part, concedes that the upgrades have nothing to do with addressing obsolescence or increasing security: it is all about improving "performance."
The threat of the production of a new generation of nuclear weapons would necessarily prompt the Russia government to "modernize" its own stockpiles. Russia has also been put on notice by Washington's Nuclear Weapons Council (staffed by Pentagon and Energy Department officials), which announced in November 2010 its intention to keep US nuclear weapons armed-and-ready well into the second half of the 21st century. This is ominous news for disarmament campaigners like Götz Neuneck of the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy. If the US persists, Neuneck warned Der Spiegel, "new tactical nuclear weapons will be stationed in Europe and nuclear disarmament will be impossible for decades."
Another portion of the FY 2015 budget would address the problematic infrastructure required to remain a "nuclear power." In December 2013, the watchdog group, Project On Government Oversight (POGO), reviewed a report by the Pentagon's office of Cost Assessment and Project Evaluation concerning a proposed Uranium Processing Facility (UPF) at the Y-12 nuclear weapons complex in Tennessee. Originally targeted to cost around $600 million, the UPF is now expected to cost between $12 to $19 billion. In order to bring the project's costs down to $6.5 billion, NNSA has slashed all of its dismantlement programs. The effect of these cuts, says Jay Coghlan of Nuclear Watch, will be to turn the UPF into a "production-only nuclear weapons plant."
Another costly portion of Obama's A-bomb budget would explore "pre-conceptual design efforts for [a] modular acquisition concept" that would enable the NNSA to "execute a plutonium strategy [at the Los Alamos National Laboratories] that achieves a 30 [plutonium] pit per year capacity by 2026." As Coghlan notes, neither the Department of Energy nor the White House has provided any "clear requirement or reason" to explain or justify why taxpayers should be financing a project whose only goal is to turn out as many as 30 nuclear bombs per year.
Funding Nuclear War by Cutting the Budget for PeaceWhile these prospects are profoundly troubling, the means by which the Obama administration intends to finance them is monstrously cynical. Obama would pay for a new generation of nuclear weapons by expropriating funds previously set aside for dismantling America's nuclear arsenals. These so-called "dismantlement" programs, currently set at a scant $54.2 million, would be cut to mere $30 million in 2015.
According to Nuclear Watch, these dismantlements are officially referred to as "a work load leveler across all programs," which means, in lay terms, that the spending, "instead of being a prioritized step toward the future world free of nuclear weapons, it is merely filler work in between rebuilding nuclear weapons during Life Extension Programs."
Under Obama's proposed budget, Coghlan ruefully reports, "key nonproliferation programs designed to hold the spread of nuclear weapons have been slashed by $300 million" -- a cut of 21%. Meanwhile, funding for the Defense Environmental Cleanup, the national program to reduce and remove widespread radioactive contamination left behind from the Cold War era, would be cut from $5.8 billion to $5.6 billion -- even though the decontamination program is far from complete and far behind schedule while costs continue to rise.
Instead of investing these tax dollars in education, health care or repairs to the nation's crumbling infrastructure, the White House is preparing to spend billions to "modernize" nuclear weapons – a technology that has been called the "greatest existential threat" to the security and survival of United States and the rest of the planet. As Coghlan puts it, the new budget would lavish billions on bombs "while nonmilitary domestic services are cut or flat-lined."
The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has published a study on the Projected Costs of Nuclear Forces 2014 – 2023 that sets the full costs for maintaining and modernizing the atomic stockpile, advancing its delivery systems, and stoking the nuclear research and production complex at around $355 billion over the next 10 years. These costs are expected to increase after 2023, when the modernization process really begins to kick in. The report did not consider the added costs of maintaining the nuclear arsenal over the next 30 years, but Nuclear Watch, extrapolating from current trends, predicts the overall amount "will easily exceed $1 trillion."
"Increased budgets for nuclear weapons are being paid off the back of dismantlements, nonproliferation and cleanup programs, which is just plain wrong," Coghlan says. "It's common knowledge that NNSA's nuclear weapons programs have a staggering track record of cost overruns, schedule delays and security breaches. It's less well-known that these programs may undermine stockpile reliability by introducing unneeded, incredibly expensive changes to existing nuclear weapons that have been extensively tested and are known to be even more reliable than originally thought."
Coghlan contends that NNSA's programs should be curtailed so that tax money can be redirected to expanding "nonproliferation programs that actually enhance national security, cleanup programs that protect the environment while creating jobs, and dismantlement programs that get rid of nuclear weapons forever."
Gar Smith is Editor Emeritus of Earth Island Journal, a veteran of the Free Speech Movement, a Project Censored award winner, co-founder of Environmentalists Against War and author of Nuclear Roulette: The Truth about the Most Dangerous Energy Source on Earth (Chelsea Green 2012).