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The Price of Nuclear Reductions

Rep. Mike D. Rogers (R-Ala.), chairman of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, has threatened to block $75 million from the FY 2014 budget for reductions to the US nuclear arsenal. The planned reductions will bring the US into compliance with its commitments under the New Start Treaty. The bi-lateral arms control agreement with Russia commits the US to reducing deployed strategic warheads to 1,550 by 2018.

Public battles over funding nuclear programs are a major change from the blank check that Congress handed the US nuclear weapons complex during the Cold War. At the time, Congress related to the production and maintenance of the U.S. nuclear arsenal in much the same way the public relates to the manufacture of circulating coinage and paper currency. On the one hand, politicians knew very well that the U.S. arsenal was not free. After all, Congress financed the nuclear weapon complex. Yet, on the other hand, the arms race between the U.S. and Soviet Union proceeded as if it were costless. U.S. nuclear security policy was not set within the budgetary constraints that applied to other public programs. Nuclear weapons were considered cheaper than conventional forces because they offered “more bang for the buck.”  Nuclear weapons programs evaded the intense scrutiny of partisan politics and garnered strong bipartisan support. Moreover, the financial costs of nuclear weapons were shielded from public scrutiny by classification levels that kept most information about costs out of the news media. It was as if the supply of nuclear weapons was infinite, and the U.S. could just continue producing nuclear weapons much the way it minted money.

This practice of treating nuclear weapons as virtually costless changed after the Cold War ended. For the first time current and former costs of the U.S. nuclear weapons complex were subjected to ongoing scrutiny by nongovernmental organizations, and as the process of reducing the size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal became a reality, budgets for research, development and modernization became tighter. (The effects of budget constraints are already visible to anyone personally acquainted with the National Labs.)

The biggest changes, however, are yet to come. In his first-term, President Barack Obama made reducing the role of nuclear weapons a central feature of his administration’s foreign policy agenda, an initiative that the Republican-controlled Congress vigorously opposed. Obama is said to be considering further reductions during hus second term. Given the resistance in Congress to passing New Start, Obama will likely seek an informal agreement with Russia in the form of a Presidential Nuclear Initiative, obviating the need to seek ratification in the Senate. That leaves the appropriations process as the battleground and will likely lead to a very public debate about the current financial costs of maintaining a nuclear arsenal.

And so it begins…the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee has made their approval of the $75 million for New Start reductions contingent on a report specifying the planned reductions. For his part, Rep. Rogers wants a “personal commitment” that  Obama “will not seek reductions that circumvent the treaty or the congressional authorization process.”

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