Editorial: Stop the nuclear spending spree

Like all presidents in their last year of service, President Barack Obama is trying to shrug off lame-duck feelings by pushing initiatives and programs that will outlast his term. Obama has put in motion one set of initiatives that, if implemented, would long outlast his administration and the next and would harm a generation of the world's citizens.

Obama has unleashed a military spending spree to create a new generation of nuclear warheads, bombers, submarines and intercontinental ballistic missiles, a plan that the Union of Concerned Scientists has called "reckless, wasteful and downright dangerous."

The budget request that Obama sent to Congress last year calls for spending $348 billion over the next 10 years and $1 trillion over 30 years to upgrade our nuclear arsenals.

Pieces of the plan are already in motion. In October, the administration awarded Northrop Grumman a contract to develop new long-range bombers capable of carrying nuclear weapons. The price tag: $80 billion.

In January, the administration was working to win approval for the Air Force's request to build up to 1,100 new-generation, nuclear-capable, air-launched cruise missiles, nearly double the size of the existing arsenal. The price tag: $30 billion.

The Air Force would also like to have 650 new intercontinental ballistic missiles, and the Navy is lobbying to build 12 new submarines, which would be nuclear-capable.

Obama has long had ambitious plans for nuclear spending. Since 2010, under directions from the administration, weapons builders and the Departments of Defense and Energy have been working to "modernize" existing nuclear weapons, making them smaller, more reliable and more precise.

These nuclear plans are troubling for at least two reasons.

First, the spending spree is an unconscionable squandering of national resources. These billions of dollars could be better used on any number of programs that would truly benefit the nation and world, funding projects that would truly make people safer and better-off.

More spending on early childhood development programs, research into preventable diseases like malaria, and investments in renewable energy sources are just three examples of undersupported programs that could improve people's lives and increase security.

Second, these newer-smaller-better nuclear weapons aren't safer. They are, in fact, more dangerous than the weapons they replace.

The New York Times quoted Gen. James Cartwright, a retired vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and one of Obama's most influential nuclear strategists, as saying that the smaller yields and more precision targeting of the new nukes makes the use of these weapons "more thinkable." What he means is that the weapons become more tempting to use, not just in retaliation, but as first-strike weapons.

Eliminating weapons programs and trimming defense budgets are always tough political fights, but it has been done in the past. Maybe it can be done now. Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., and Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., have co-sponsored the Smarter Approach to Nuclear Expenditures (SANE) Act, which would cut $100 billion from the U.S. nuclear weapons budget over the next decade by reducing submarine, missile and aircraft purchases and by halting nuclear weapon production and missile defense programs. One would hope that some Republican fiscal hawks in Congress would make this a bipartisan effort.

If this administration won't adjust spending plans, perhaps the next one will. On the stump in Iowa, Hillary Clinton -- whose nonproliferation reputation includes, as secretary of state, helping Obama negotiate the New START Treaty with Russia -- said of the trillion-dollar nuclear weapons plans, "I'm going to look into that. It doesn't make sense to me."

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders has called for "fundamental changes" in how the Pentagon spends money and for a world free of nuclear weapons.

Less hope is coming from the Republican camp, even among the most fiscally conservative. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Donald Trump, Carly Fiorina, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio all favor the nuclear "modernization." Texas Sen. Ted Cruz has said he would follow President Ronald Reagan's leadership model, and negotiate to reduce the number of nuclear weapons from a position of strength.

In 2009, his first year in office, Obama famously pledged to work for a world without nuclear weapons, and he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. He did make progress in reducing the numbers of weapons stockpiled by the United States and Russia, but his plan to modernize the arsenal we have and to expand delivery systems seems to be canceling out that early progress.

It's not too late, Mr. President. Withdraw your plans. Leave a legacy of peace.

This story appeared in the Feb 12-25, 2016 print issue under the headline: Stop the nuclear spending spree .

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