A leading defense hawk took to the floor of the House of Representatives to argue that greater security in the 21st century means spending less on nuclear weapons. This could signal a turning point as leaders in Congress see the strategic and fiscal realities behind why the U.S. should reduce its nuclear arsenal.
Rep. Norman Dicks (D-WA) is a steadfast supporter of national defense. He is the Ranking Member of the House Appropriations Committee and has served on the Subcommittee on Defense for 34 years. He speaks forcefully -- both in style and substance. Last week, he stood on the House floor to oppose a proposal on nuclear weapons.
Republicans in the House offered, and later passed, an amendment to the Defense Appropriations Bill that would block reductions to the nuclear arsenal -- including those agreed to under the New START Treaty. Rep. Dicks opposed the proposal, arguing that New START has clear security benefits and should not be undercut.
But, once on the floor of the House, he opposed more than the proposal. He opposed the idea behind it. He said:
"We simply don't need, and we can't afford to have and continue to produce all of these nuclear weapons that will, more than likely, never be used. They are a good deterrent and they have been an effective deterrent. Thank God for that. But the Cold War is over, and we are in a position today where we must reduce the size of our nuclear weapons force."
Rep. Michael Turner (R-OH), who sponsored the amendment, disagreed. He responded, "While we stand on this floor and speak with the freedoms that we have, our nuclear deterrent keeps us safe. Abandoning our nuclear deterrent would not make us safe."
The two congressmen sparred briefly in a fascinating discussion (full transcript here). Rep. Dicks was given the last word:
"You don't need thousands of these weapons. A couple hundred, frankly, could take out Iran and almost any country you can imagine. So, again, we can't afford to do everything. We are in an era where we're dealing with terrorists, and we need to have special forces that can be utilized. We need to have these very effective drones. We need to look at the threats that are out there today and equip our military accordingly."
This statement recognizes two realities. First, in order to control the national debt, the defense budget is going to come down. As it does, Congress will need to make smarter investments and cut excessive programs. Second, the U.S. nuclear arsenal has plenty of excess.
Leading experts and military officials agree that the United States would be more secure with fewer nuclear weapons. A new report chaired by Gen. James Cartwright, former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, argues that the U.S. could reduce its arsenal to 900 total nuclear weapons.
As former Secretary of State Colin Powell said about the U.S. nuclear arsenal, "We have every incentive to reduce the number. These are expensive. They take away from soldier pay." He added, "They take away from lots of things. There is no incentive to keep more than you believe you need for the security of the nation."
Rep. Dicks understands this. To have a capable military on an affordable budget, excessive or outdated programs must be cut. His solution is that nukes should be on the chopping block.
It's strong advice. It would help strengthen the military against today's threats by shedding the nuclear excesses of the Cold War.
And if defense hawks are ready to make this argument, others in Congress are sure to follow.