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To Cut Wasteful Spending, Start With Nuclear Weapons

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The first "fiscal cliff" was temporarily averted through a last-minute congressional deal. The next "fiscal cliff", the automatic budget cuts, known as sequestration, is scheduled to arrive March first. Between now and March, Congress and the president will be searching for a way to reshape the budget in a more surgical, strategic way, rather than through mindless, across-the-board cuts. One place to start is with the nuclear weapons programs at the Departments of Defense and Energy.

Consider this: over the next decade nuclear weapons and related programs could cost $640 billion. This colossal price tag is impossible to justify. Since the end of the Cold War, nuclear weapons have played a far smaller role in ensuring American security -- yet the nuclear weapons budget remains stubbornly high. For a modern and cost-effective defense budget, we must reshape and right-size this area of defense spending.

Many are unaware of the hidden costs of simply keeping the nuclear arsenal operational: it costs money not only to maintain nuclear weapons, but also to refurbish them, keep them secure, operate the bases where they are housed and train the professionals who manage and protect them. By the estimate of the Washington-based Stimson Center, those operations and maintenance costs add up to approximately 31 billion dollars a year, and are slated to expand in coming years.

And the spending doesn't stop there. Rather than optimize our nuclear policy and posture for the 21st century, the government has actually pushed to expand nuclear programs -- and the costs are spiraling out of control. Here are just a few examples:

The plan to modernize the B61 gravity bomb will cost $10 billion. In total, each new B61 bomb will cost more than its weight in gold -- a steep price for a bomb whose primary purpose was to prevent the Soviet armor from rolling across Germany, a threat that has long since disappeared.

In a classic example of runaway spending, the projected cost of a brand-new nuclear facility at Los Alamos, New Mexico has ballooned from $375 million to at least $3.7 billion -- a tenfold increase. The Obama administration and both houses of Congress have agreed on a five-year delay to the project, a sign of bipartisan agreement that the building's considerable costs outweigh the potential benefits.

Another new facility, the Uranium Processing Facility in Tennessee, has also seen its estimated costs nearly double, going from $3.5 billion to $6.5 billion in just one year. This is all the more egregious given that the facility may not even be necessary: it has been reported that the existing infrastructure could simply be upgraded instead -- for less than 1/1,000th of the cost of the new laboratory.

Finally, the Navy has an ambitious plan to build twelve new ballistic missile submarines, which will cost nearly $350 billion over their lifetime. The Navy itself has admitted that this staggering cost will compromise its ability to build other ships. To reduce costs, the Navy could build a smaller fleet of eight submarines, which could, if necessary, house the same number of nuclear warheads as the proposed fleet of twelve. The programs to modernize the other two legs of the nuclear triad, bombers and long range missiles, should also be closely reviewed for cost and strategic necessity.

Nuclear weapons programs account for a significant portion of unnecessary defense spending and hence the deficit. The billions of dollars spent on the upkeep and upgrading of nuclear weapons could be used to pay down the deficit, or invest in higher-priority defense programs.

Those who argue that we need more nuclear weapons for national security are trapped in a Cold War mindset. The world has changed since the Soviet Union collapsed -- and our strategy must change, as well. As former STRATCOM Deputy Commander Lt. General Dirk Jameson put it, "Having more nuclear weapons doesn't mean we are winning... It merely reflects that our strategy is ill-suited to our times."

The strategic way to cut defense spending is not by cutting across the board, but by focusing on specific wasteful and unnecessary weapons systems. Nuclear weapons programs should be at the top of this list. With the Cold War far behind us, and an era of difficult budgetary choices ahead, we must ask whether we want to continue bearing the costs of an expensive nuclear arsenal that is a relic of a bygone era and doesn't help to keep us safe.

This article was written in collaboration with Usha Sahay a Herbert Scoville, Jr. Peace Fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.