THE BLOG

Hiding Under Our Desks on Nuclear Policy

03/05/2014 06:02 pm ET | Updated May 05, 2014
  • Mike Quigley U.S. Representative for Illinois' 5th District

Growing up during the Cold War, I remember the seemingly imminent threat of nuclear war. In primary school we were taught to "duck-and-cover" for protection. But even as children hiding under wooden desks, we recognized the inadequacies of this strategy. Sadly, our national nuclear strategy is now showing the same futility.

The Obama Administration's recent budget requests are perfect examples of our backwards thinking. With the defense and military budget at a critical crossroads, the Pentagon has inexplicably shielded nuclear weapons from cuts. This year, the Administration is requesting a seven percent increase to the National Nuclear Security Administration's Weapons Activities account, increasing this line item to a staggering $8.31 billion. Meanwhile, nonproliferation programs are on the chopping block, with programs such as the Global Threat Reduction Initiative being cut by 30 percent. More weapons and less nonproliferation is not a plan for the future.

Two decades since the end of the Cold War and more than a dozen years since September 11th, our outdated nuclear weapons policy is an anchor dragging down our military - -wasting money on yesterday's Cold War threats while ignoring today's 21st century security needs.

Over the next decade, the U.S. is set to spend hundreds of billions of dollars operating and upgrading our nuclear force. Rather than buying the status quo, it's time to reevaluate our defense spending and remake a more efficient nuclear force that meets our future fiscal and strategic needs.

Large-scale nuclear powers are no longer today's predominant threat. Rather, non-state actors bent on bringing terror to our shores remain our most pressing security issue. Our stockpile of nearly 2,100 deployed warheads is not only irrelevant for today's threats but also unsustainable.

Current nuclear weapons projects are estimated to cost $355 billion over the next ten years, according to the Congressional Budget Office. It makes no sense to surge investment into weapons that matter less and less for our national security.

We can be just as safe with a smaller, more efficient nuclear arsenal at less cost.

Scaling back the B61 nuclear bomb program is a reasonable start. Gen. James Cartwright, former Commander of U.S. Strategic Command, describes the B61 as having the military value "practically of nil." Still, the U.S. is about to spend over $10 billion to upgrade the bomb. There are smarter alternatives for the B61 that could save billions without affecting our national security.

It's also time to find efficiency in the nuclear triad. The U.S. can meet the ceilings of the New START Treaty -- 1,550 deployed nuclear warheads -- in a more affordable way. Scaling back the U.S. fleet of 14 nuclear-armed submarines to eight would maintain a robust deterrent at sea while generating billions in savings and easing pressure on the Navy's shipbuilding budget.

The Department of Defense could also rethink plans for the Air Force's future bomber force. The new bomber will have stealth capabilities precisely designed to penetrate enemy airspace but will boast long-range nuclear-equipped missiles, which it is unlikely to ever use. Scrapping that missile would save billions and have little effect on the bomber's mission.

Actions like these could make a more efficient nuclear force and save us billions -- allowing us to invest in defense programs that get our troops what they need to defend the country from today's threats.

As Congress debates nuclear policy, both deficit and defense hawks should agree on building a sound, practical plan to reduce our nuclear stockpile -- keeping only what we absolutely need, at a cost taxpayers can afford. These efforts are already underway in Congress. In an attempt at modest reform, I sought to reduce the cost of upgrading the B61 nuclear bomb in this year's appropriations bill. At the time, 195 of my colleagues on the left and right joined together to confront the escalating price of the bomb. While that amendment failed to pass, our push for reform was ultimately a win, as this year's Omnibus Appropriations Act includes a funding level that mirrors the cut we offered.

Building on this support, I will continue to work towards a commonsense plan to reduce our nuclear stockpile and to reform our nuclear strategy so it better addresses the world of today, not the world I grew up in. Just as we can no longer pretend that ducking under wooden desks will keep us safe from a nuclear bomb, we must no longer pretend that a large nuclear stockpile will protect us from the most immediate security threats the United States faces.