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A Trillion Dollars in Nuclear Weapons

Global Zero, the international movement pressing for the phased and verifiable elimination of all nuclear weapons, has issued a report estimating that the 8.5 nuclear weapons states–North Korea is rated halfway there–will spend about $1 trillion dollars in this decade upgrading, expanding and maintaining their atomic arsenals. The study, which has received some notice in the press, notably in the Financial Times, is based primarily on more technical investigations by the Brookings Institution and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, supplemented by other sources. Whatever else is said about the nuclear weapons programs described by Global Zero, they certainly are not consistent with the goal of setting the conditions for abolition of all weapons of mass destruction–the major theme of this blog.

For the record, Global Zero is a thoroughly establishmentarian organization, not to be confused with the grassroots movements that erupted in western Europe and the United States during the Reagan years. That activism–in retrospect the last gasp of the Cold War–was largely motivated by anxieties connected with the Reagan Administration’s confrontational military and diplomatic policies. Global Zero, by contrast, was created because of concern among world opinion leaders about the complacency that’s set in regarding nuclear weapons.
Supporters include former presidents like Jimmy Carter, Mikhail Gorbachev, Vaclav Havel and Ernesto Zedillo, prime ministers Carl Bildt, Yasuo Fukuda, and José María Aznar López, U.S. secretaries of state Henry Kissinger and Georg Schultz, and miscellaneous celebrity experts like Timothy Garton Ash, Barry Blechman, Zgibniew Brzezinski, Roald Sagdeev, Strobe Talbott, Horst Teltschik, Frank von Hippel, and Philip Zelikow.

What has mainly got the attention of the world press, naturally, is Global Zero’s one-trillion-dollar figure for total nuclear weapons spending in the second decade following the end of the Cold War and the supposed end of nuclear arms races. But several of the report’s more detailed findings richly deserve attention and reflection, among them:

• The U.S. program to upgrade its arsenal of nuclear weapons accounts for more than half of total projected world spending on such weapons in the coming ten years; total U.S. costs associated with atomic weaponry came to about $95 billion in 2011, and in the next decade will amont to roughly $185 billion.

• Russian expenditures, though barely a fifth of U.S. nuclear outlays in 2011, are rising sharply: they climbed roughly 50 percent from 2010 to 2011. “With the bulk of its geriatric arsenal reaching the end of its lifespan during the next five years, Russia is launching a veritable crash program to churn out a new generation of rockets and submarines to replace it.” (Unmentioned in the report’s summary: the greater role now accorded in Russian strategic thinking to nuclear deterrence, the conventional military balance having shifted drastically in favor of NATO.)

• China’s nuclear weapons spending (though sometimes adduced as a reason for the astoundingly large U.S. buildup) is surprisingly small by world standards: though the report emphasizes the uncertainties, given Chinese secrecy, it guesses that China spends only about 5 percent of its military budget on its atomic arsenal, compared to the 10 percent figure typical of most other nuclear weapons states.

• Pakistan is engaged in a “break-neck effort to double its already sizable arsenal over the next decade,” from 125 weapons today to 250-350 over the next 5-10 years. (The size of Pakistan’s arsenal in 2020 will be comparable to France’s or Britain’s, which are trimming their forces and reconsidering modernization plans.) India, which “has always minimized the role of nuclear weapons in its national security strategy,” has a much smaller arsenal. However, it’s expanding that arsenal and may now be spending a larger fraction of its military budget on nuclear weapons than is true of China (its main strategic concern, says the report) or even Pakistan.

• Israel has “concentrated on acquiring a fleet of 5-6 submarines capable of firing nuclear-armed cruise missiles, and stationing 3 of them in the Persian Gulf to project a nuclear threat at Israel’s current and only nuclear-capable adversary–Iran.”

Both the strength and weakness of the Global Zero report is its enumeration of the main facts, without much in the way of comment or interpretation. But not all the facts speak for themselves, and some may be not quite factual. Iran is not nuclear-capable and arguably is not the main nuclear weapons threat facing Israel. The nuclear-capable country abutting the Persian Gulf is Pakistan. Its military leadership does not represent a nuclear threat to Israel, to be sure. But its control is tenuous, Islamist sympathies are extremely widespread and deep, and the security of the country’s atomic bombs is a chronic worry.

With respect to the Persian Gulf, by the way, it would be interesting to know how many Germans know they have helped Israel establish patrols of nuclear-weapons-equipped submarines. Germany’s commitment to Israel’s security is near-absolute, of course. But the country’s antagonism to nuclear weapons is profound–and so too its aversion to Israel’s usual policies toward the Palestinians.

President Obama has delivered an eloquent speech on the subject of nuclear disarmament, and has said organizations dedicated to multilateral disarmament like Global Zero “will always have a partner in me and my administration.” Just last night he said it’s time for the United States to start paring military spending to focus on domestic priorities.

It would be nice if that thought somehow translated into reconsideration of the country’s extravagant plans for nuclear weapons modernization.

Regrettably that’s not to be expected. Why not? Because, at present, none of the political conditions for serious nuclear disarmament exist. The Soviet scientific intelligentsia and the disarmament-minded veterans of the Manhattan projects have faded from the scene. The European and U.S. peace movements are dead. Nothing, as yet, has emerged to fill those voids.



William Sweet
William Sweet

Bill Sweet has been writing about nuclear arms control and peace politics since interning at the IAEA in Vienna during summer 1974, right after India's test of a "peaceful nuclear device." As an editor and writer for Congressional Quarterly, Physics Today and IEEE Spectrum magazine he wrote about the freeze and European peace movements, space weaponry and Star Wars, Iraq, North Korea and Iran. His work has appeared in magazines like the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists and The New Republic, as well as in The New York Times, the LA Times, Newsday and the Baltimore Sun. The author of two books--The Nuclear Age: Energy, Proliferation and the Arms Race, and Kicking the Carbon Habit: The Case for Renewable and Nuclear Energy--he recently published "Situating Putin," a group of essays about contemporary Russia, as an e-book. He teaches European history as an adjunct at CUNY's Borough of Manhattan Community College.