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Cash for Nuclear Clunkers

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Co-authored by Benjamin Loehrke, Ploughshares Fund Research Assistant.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has ordered a $60 billion cut in spending over the next five years. The Joint Chiefs of Staff should trade in their old, high-cost nuclear bombs for cash required to buy the effective conventional equipment they need.

Word of these cuts filtered out last week, but Gates has been making his logic clear for months. In his June 16 speech in Chicago, the Secretary said:

The grim reality is that with regard to the budget we have entered a zero-sum game. Every defense dollar diverted to fund excess or unneeded capacity - whether for more F-22s or anything else - is a dollar that will be unavailable to take care of our people, to win the wars we are in, to deter potential adversaries, and to improve capabilities in areas where America is underinvested and potentially vulnerable. That is a risk I cannot accept and I will not take.

Gates wants the Pentagon to shift dollars away from excess capacities in order to better protect America's real interests. Reducing the U.S. nuclear arsenal will do that and more.

The U.S. spends $54 billion-a-year on nuclear weapons. In a study for the Carnegie Endowment, Stephen Schwartz estimates that the Department of Defense alone spends over $22 billion-a-year maintaining the U.S. nuclear arsenal, including a small fortune to keep thousands of weapons ready to use on a moment's notice.

We have more than enough nuclear weapons for any conceivable military mission. As Daryl Kimball, Executive Director of the Arms Control Association, said last week in a speech at U.S. Strategic Command:

Quite simply, maintaining a large nuclear arsenal dedicated to perform a wide range of missions is unnecessary and contrary to the United States security interest. The number and role of U.S. nuclear weapons should be strictly limited to what is essential and unique...

Yesterday's nuclear doctrines and arsenals do not fit today's realities.

How many weapons are in our excessive nuclear arsenal? Let's count 'em up:

• 2,200 strategic nuclear weapons ready to launch on long-range missiles, submarines and bombers
• 2,500 more warheads in reserve
• 500 short-range weapons
• 4,200 warheads held in storage awaiting dismantlement

That is a grand total of 9,400 warheads. All are hydrogen bombs, ten times more powerful than the bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, 64 years ago this week. The Russians have an estimated 13,000 bombs. Together, we hold 96 percent of all the nuclear weapons in the world. We have steadily reduced our arsenals for 20 years, but we still have enough to destroy the world many times over.

These weapons are a liability, not a security asset. More weapons means more risk.

• Eliminating hundreds of redundant nuclear weapons from American and Russian arsenals would lower the chance of accidental nuclear war. In 1995, after the Cold War ended, Russia almost launched its nuclear missiles when they mistook a Norwegian weather rocket for a U.S. nuclear attack.

• Eliminating weapons reduces the risk of nuclear mishaps. In 2007 Air Force crews mistakenly loaded 6 nuclear weapons on a B-52 and flew the bombs across the country. No one knew where the bombs were for 36 hours. Air Force crews have scored poorly in several security checks since. If the U.S. has serious flaws with command and control of its nuclear weapons, how can we be confident in Russia's ability to prevent the loss, theft or accidental use of its nuclear weapons? How about Pakistan?

• Eliminating or securing weapons and nuclear materials stored in warehouses reduces the opportunities for terrorists to steal or buy a weapon they could use to destroy an American city.

The process of achieving serious negotiated reductions, previously neglected by the Bush administration, has been restarted. President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev agreed during the Moscow Summit on July 6 to go down to 1500 to 1675 deployed strategic nuclear weapons each from the current nonbinding limit of 2200 weapons. More reductions should follow.

If Secretary Gates is looking to save money and make us safer, there is no better place to start than by eliminating the security liabilities we promote in our arsenal of nuclear clunkers.