Wasted Opportunities? The New Defense Budget and Nuclear Posture Review

by John Whitehead

The Biden administration released its proposed defense budget for Fiscal Year 2023 earlier this spring. The proposal for military spending was also accompanied by a few details on the administration’s plans related to nuclear weapons. For peace activists, the defense plans contain much to lament, but also one significant positive step.

The most obvious feature of the new proposed defense budget is its enormous size. The Biden administration is requesting US$773 billion for the Defense Department. This amount is consistent with the generally high levels of US military spending, which has been over US$700 billion (in 2020 dollars) for several years now. By the time the defense budget has been through congressional review, the total spending amount may well rise further, if only to account for inflation.

A defense budget of this size (by far the largest of any country in the world) means that hundreds of billions of dollars that could be spent helping poor or otherwise disadvantaged people at home or abroad will instead be spent for military purposes.

What are the goals all this military spending is meant to realize? Defense Department statements are clear on this point. As Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chair Mark Milley, and the defense budget document have explained, the primary US military concern is countering China.

Echoing the 2022 National Defense Strategy, the Defense Department’s spending overview document identifies the number one American military priority as “Defending the homeland paced to the growing multi-domain threat posed by the People’s Republic of China (PRC).” In his recent statement to the House Armed Services Committee, Secretary Austin said “The People’s Republic of China (PRC) is the Department’s pacing challenge due to its coercive and increasingly aggressive efforts to refashion the Indo-Pacific region and the international system to suit its interests and preferences.” General Milley, in his own statement to the House committee, said “The People’s Republic of China (PRC) remains our #1 long term geo-strategic pacing challenge” and predicted China was seeking to become a military equal of the United States by 2035.

While the United States’ conflict with Russia over Ukraine is currently dominating the media (and the supposed threat from Russia certainly receives attention in recent Defense Department statements), the military establishment’s top priority is China. This concern, combined with China’s significant power, signals that a Cold War-like confrontation between the United States and China will shape world politics for the foreseeable future.

Combined with the parallel US-Russia conflict, US plans to counter China mean peace activists will have to contend with multiple great-power conflicts over the long term. Even setting aside the terrible risk of world war, these great-power conflicts will waste enormous sums of money that could otherwise be spent on peaceful purposes. One wonders how much of the US$773 billion in planned military spending is strictly necessary, given that the US military spends almost 3 times what China is estimated to spend on its military and about 12 times what Russia spends.

Along with planning for great power conflict, the Biden administration has been developing its policy on nuclear weapons. The administration recently submitted its Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), an official statement on the role nuclear weapons will play in US foreign policy that every president typically issues. The administration sent its new NPR to Congress at the end of March. While the 2022 NPR has not yet been made available to the public, some details can be gleaned from the proposed defense budget as well as public Defense Department statements.

Of the US$773 billion in the FY2023 defense budget, US$34 billion will go to fund nuclear weapons. These funds will go to all three major types of nuclear weapons: land-based missiles, submarine-based missiles, and weapons carried by aircraft.

This planned nuclear weapons funding indicates that the Biden administration has regrettably decided to maintain perhaps the most dangerous of the three nuclear weapons types, the land-based missiles. Land-based missiles are poorly suited to what is supposedly the purpose of nuclear weapons: deterring a nuclear attack from another nation.

Being stationary, land-based missiles can be targeted and destroyed by another nation’s nuclear attack. In contrast to nuclear weapons on submarines or aircraft, such missiles are far less likely to survive an enemy attack and thus be available for retaliation. Land-based missiles’ value as a deterrent to an enemy attack is limited.

Land-based nuclear missiles also make an accidental nuclear war more likely. Precisely because they are so vulnerable, land-based missiles create a strong incentive for the president to launch the missiles at the first sign of an incoming enemy attack, before the enemy can destroy them. This perverse “use-them-or-lose-them” logic makes it more likely that an American president will launch nuclear weapons in response to what may actually be a false alarm, before decision makers have the time to understand the situation fully.

Eliminating land-based nuclear missiles would have saved billions of dollars from being wasted while also lowering the terrible danger of an accidental nuclear war. The Biden administration has apparently decided not to pursue this course, however.

Available information also suggests that the Biden administration has decided to reject a policy of “no first use.” Under a no-first-use policy, the United States would pledge never to initiate the use of nuclear weapons but only to use such weapons in response to another nation’s use of them. A no-first-use policy could offer reassurance to other nuclear-armed nations that they need not fear an American nuclear attack as long as they also refrain from using nuclear weapons. This policy would also be a powerful symbolic reinforcement of the taboo on using nuclear weapons in war.

Despite the value of a no-first-use policy, though, the Defense Department’s short announcement of the new NPR suggests the administration has chosen a different route. The announcement contains the terse statement that “The United States would only consider the use of nuclear weapons in extreme circumstances to defend the vital interests of the United States or its allies and partners.”

Such a statement leaves open the possibility of initiating the use of nuclear weapons. If the Biden administration has indeed opted to reject no-first-use, another opportunity to decrease the danger of nuclear war has been lost.

Despite the generally dismal picture presented by the proposed budget and NPR-related information, the administration is trying to take at least one positive step. The Defense Department has decided to cancel plans for a low-yield nuclear weapon that the Trump administration had been pursuing.

While less destructive than other nuclear weapons, low-yield nuclear weapons may be more likely to be used. Their lesser destructive power may paradoxically create a greater temptation to use them, as such a step seems less daunting than using more powerful weapons. Yet even a low-yield nuclear weapon can cause a great deal of death and destruction, while also opening the door to the escalating use of more powerful nuclear weapons. Given the particular dangers such weapons pose, the Biden administration’s decision not to pursue them is encouraging.

This encouraging step needs to be accompanied by others. The United States should embrace a no-first-use policy on nuclear weapons and work to decrease its nuclear arsenal and massive military budget.

Peace activists should consider contacting their representatives in the House (see https://www.house.gov/representatives/find-your-representative) and Senate (see https://www.senate.gov/senators/senators-contact.htm) about the proposed defense budget and NPR. We should urge our members of Congress to call for cuts in military spending and specifically in nuclear weapons spending and for a no-first-use policy. Let’s move away from policies that waste money while making nuclear war more likely.

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