This article was originally published by Foreign Policy In Focus.

On February 1,
the Obama administration delivered a budget request calling for a full
10 percent increase in nuclear weapons spending next year, to be
followed by further increases in subsequent years.    

These increases, if enacted, would bring the recent six-year period
of flat and declining nuclear weapons budgets to an abrupt end. Not
since 2005 has Congress approved such a large nuclear weapons
budget. Seeing Obama’s request Linton Brooks, who ran the National
Nuclear Security Administration for President Bush from 2003 to 2007,
remarked to Nuclear Weapons and Materials Monitor, “I would’ve killed for this kind of budget.”

Largest Since Manhattan Project

Obama’s request includes more than twice last year’s funding for a
$5 billion upgrade to plutonium warhead core (“pit”) production
facilities at Los Alamos. If the budget request passes intact, Los
Alamos would see a 22 percent budget increase in a single year, its
biggest since the Manhattan Project. 

The request proposes major upgrades to certain bombs as well as the
design, and ultimately production, of a new ballistic missile
warhead. Warhead programs are increased almost across the board, with
the notable exception of dismantlement, which is set to decline
dramatically. A continued scientific push to develop simulations and
experiments to partially replace nuclear testing is evident. 

All these initiatives and others are embedded in an overall military
budget bigger than any since the 1940s that includes renewed funding
for the development of advanced delivery vehicles, cruise missiles, and
plenty of money for nuclear deployments. 

Linked to START

This proposed “surge” responds to a December 2009 request
from Senate Republicans (plus Lieberman) for significant increases in
nuclear weapons spending. Such increases, these senators said, were necessary (but not necessarily sufficient) to obtain their ratification votes for a follow-on to the START treaty (which expired in December). 

As of this writing the new treaty remains under negotiation.
Ratification of any treaty requires 67 votes, a much higher hurdle than
the 60 needed to break a filibuster. As the 2010 campaign season begins
in earnest, it remains to be seen if this expansive nuclear spending
package is anywhere near hawkish enough to buy the necessary votes. 

Also, key politicians of both parties have pork-barrel interests in
the nuclear weapons complex, interests not confined by the boundaries
of their districts and states. In today’s Congress, money and influence
flow freely across these lines. The contracts at stake are big by any
standard. Nuclear weapons complex contractors are among the nation’s largest recipients of contract dollars. So far in FY 2010, seven of the top 10 U.S. contractors are nuclear weapons site management contractors or partners.  

For their part, most Democrats assume — despite a small mountain of
evidence otherwise — that a nuclear weapons spending surge is genuinely
needed. Some of the administration officials behind this surge have
been retained from the Bush administration. Others, like Undersecretary
of State Ellen Tauscher, are Democratic hawks. There are no doves. 

Squared with Prague?

This increase in spending on the nuclear complex does not contradict
Obama’s public statements, for example in Prague in April 2009, that he
would “seek” nuclear disarmament. In contrast to Picasso’s famous
dictum (“Others seek, I find”), Obama has said only that he would
“seek” disarmament. Despite the powers theoretically available to him
as commander-in-chief, which encompass every aspect of nuclear
deployment and procurement, Obama has said nothing about finding disarmament. 

In many ways the President is building on the rhetorical foundation
laid in January 2007 by the so-called “Four Horsemen” — George Schultz,
Henry Kissinger, William Perry, and Sam Nunn — who with 16 others laid out their rationale
for a “world free of nuclear weapons.” These men did not, either in
their original op-ed or in their subsequent ones, actually advocate any
but the vaguest steps toward actual disarmament. 

What they offered instead was aspirational rhetoric that was
all-too-uncritically received in most circles. Subsequently, three of
the four supported the Bush administration’s Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) or its equivalent, and Perry co-convened an influential nuclear policy report that called for funding increases, new construction, and replacement warheads. Their op-ed
last month calling for a big increase in nuclear weapons spending
brought these rhetorical contradictions sharply into view. Nuclear
disarmament, even as an aspiration, was missing.

No New Nukes?

Administration spokespersons have been quick to say there are no
“new” warheads under consideration. That is because the word “new” can
simply never be used in connection with warheads, no matter how many
changes are involved. Last year’s Defense Authorization Act, authored
by then-congresswoman Ellen Tauscher (D-Livermore), builds a spectrum
of potential innovation into the structure of the “Stockpile
Management” program.

Last year, the administration requested and received a great deal of
money for what amounts to a new bomb, mostly for European deployment,
without the embarrassment of talking about a “new” bomb like George
Bush did. George Orwell would be proud. 

These linguistic innovations go back to 1996, when weapons
administrators and contractors sought a politically palatable path to
warhead innovation. At that time, Clinton administration bureaucrats
consciously chose to emphasize themes of “replacement” and
“stewardship” in describing programs they knew (and privately said at
the time) would result in new warheads. As attendees at one 1996
meeting said,
even “the use of the word ‘warhead’ may not be acceptable.” Linguistic
cleansing paved the way for this month’s proposed spending surge. 

Next Step: Congress

Will Congress, especially the Democratic members of Congress, fund
these increases? In part the answer depends on how seriously they take
the several converging crises facing the country and the planet, and
how seriously they address populist anger about the economy, especially
in relation to their own reelection prospects. 

In many ways the proposed nuclear weapons budget, and the defense
budget overall, can be seen as bold raids on a diminishing pool of
resources, as well as very real commitments to fading imperial
pretensions. Nuclear weapons compete directly with the renewable energy
and conservation jobs funded in the Energy and Water funding bills.  

Congress therefore has to decide, and citizens have to help them
decide, between a new generation of nuclear weapons and the factories
to make them or the greener alternative of energy and climate security
and the better economic prospects that would ensue.

Nuclear weapons are an especially dangerous investment for a
declining hegemon.  The sooner we choose a nuclear weapons path
involving less and less money, not more and more, the sooner we will be
able to wake from the hubris and pervasive violence currently
destroying us.