Because you read this magazine, you likely don’t need us to tell you that the United States spends a lot of money on defense, and that, as a nation, in total disregard of the famous military-industrial complex warning that President Eisenhower issued in the middle of the 20th century, we are set to spend $585 billion this year—less than the peak spending of $663.7 billion in FY 2010. Yet still, this amount is more than twice that of the next 10 nations combined, including our allies, according to Joe Cirincione, the president of Ploughshares Fund, a global security foundation that makes grants aimed at reducing nuclear and conventional stockpiles, keeping nuclear weapons out of terrorists’ hands, and specializes in conflict resolution. Cirincione is a member of Secretary of State John Kerry’s International Security Advisory Board and a tireless force for peace in a time of escalating tensions.
Freedom asked Cirincione to update us on what’s gone well and what’s gone wrong in defense policy and spending. Regarding man’s ability to blow the planet to kingdom come, he says the report card is mixed. U.S. negotiators successfully accomplished a difficult task—restricting new threats, particularly Iran. Left unchecked, Iran would have been in full production of nuclear weapons very soon. Because of the new international treaty, Iran’s nuclear-weapons horizon has been pushed back at least 10 years, and with the inspection regimen the agreement put in place, the world will have significant lead time to react should Iran stray.
“We’ve been less successful in convincing adversaries and allies not to modernize the existing nuclear arsenal, leading to what can only be described today as a new arms race,” Cirincione said. “And it’s not just modernizing existing forces, which everyone is doing.”
It is also creating new ones, like Russia’s purported nuclear torpedo with a 6,000-mile range, the Status-6, which can devastate wide swaths of countryside with radiation. With such an arsenal trained on Washington, D.C. and New York City, Cirincione said, “I wouldn’t sweat global warming or rising sea levels.”
Cirincione told Freedom, “Trillions will be spent worldwide on this new arms race, and there is no one to stop it. Over the next 30 years, the U.S. alone plans to spend a trillion dollars on nuclear weapons. Terrorists are not deterred by nuclear weapons. Every dollar spent on this outdated, overpriced and unnecessary arsenal is a dollar less for our true defense needs.”
The military-industrial complex is so entrenched it literally cannot be stopped.
The Senate has a little known entity called the ICBM Caucus. The ICBM Caucus is made up of senators from the northern states that contain the majority of the United States’ intercontinental ballistic missile silos. Any attempt to mothball that aging fleet of weapons aimed at Russia is met with flag waving, and stern rebuke. Those efforts at rationality always die in committee. Like he does of many initiatives backed by the military-industrial complex, Cirincione views the funding of these antiquated missiles as pork. “Everybody wants to bring home the bacon—the difference is this bacon can blow up the world.”
Another problem is alarmist politicians constantly trying to out Chicken Little one another. Whether presidential candidate Donald Trump says (incorrectly, according to Mr. Cirincione) that our military is underfunded or a senator says that a new weapons system is necessary (it often is not), fearmongering enables more and more tax dollars to be spent on systems intended to fight the kind of conventional war we are highly unlikely to face.
“Everybody wants to bring home the bacon—the difference is this bacon can blow up the world.”
Unnecessary or outmoded defense projects are difficult to get rid of because defense contractors have strategically placed research-and-development jobs, as well as manufacturing plants, in nearly all of the 435 congressional districts. Companies learned years ago that outsourcing the weapons-building process to as many congressional districts as possible puts Congress in a box. Killing off the programs also kills off local jobs, and killing local jobs is bad for business if your business is to get re-elected. Members of Congress are decidedly in the getting re-elected business.
And it sometimes even works the other way, with Congress forcing unwanted pork programs on the Pentagon. For instance, the Army has been trying to end construction of new tanks for years. In a Senate Appropriations and Intelligence Committee hearing in January of 2015, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno told Chairman John McCain, a Republican from Arizona, “We are still having to procure systems we don’t need. [We’re spending] hundreds of millions of dollars on tanks that we simply don’t have the structure for anymore.” The biggest defense contractors know a profitable thing when they see it, however, they know how to protect their interests.
Cirincione said there are a couple of important voices of reason in the Senate. He especially likes the work that California’s senior Senator, Dianne Feinstein, is doing. “She’s important because she’s the ranking member of the Senate Appropriations and Intelligence Committee.” He added, “She knows threat from bluster.” He even tweeted to her, “You go, Senator!” in support of her struggle to reduce funding for new nuclear-tipped cruise missiles.
All the stories of wasted time and money come together in the F-35, a trillion dollar boondoggle. This supersonic stealth fighter sounds good on paper, but it is a troubled weapon in search of a fight. It’s a good thing there’s no fight for it to engage in, because its development has been marred by systems that don’t work. That would be bad enough, but the F-35 is also emblematic of the kind of “mission creep” found across the defense budget. The military repeatedly requests new capabilities for the F-35, requiring Lockheed Martin’s engineers to make costly redesigns that ultimately send the manufacturer back to the Appropriations Committee.
“The current F-15 fleet costs about $12 million per copy; the proposed F-35 fleet costs out at—are you sitting down—$200 million a copy,” Cirincione said.
We spend and spend because threats, real and perceived, drive us to protect ourselves. Bad actors like North Korea are trying to create weapons of mass destruction to annihilate us, or, more practically, leverage concessions out of us. Cirincione, however, does sound a fairly positive note on that front: “The bad news is North Korea just had another nuclear test. The good news is that it failed.”
Funny what passes for good news where the subject of thermo-nuclear war is concerned.
So, we must ask ourselves some hard questions.
If outspending the next 10 nations by an aggregate factor of two is not enough, what is?
Why must we take two steps backward for every one step forward in disarmament?
And the biggest question of all: What will it take for us to realize that the money we spend on the weapons of war could be spent on education, housing, healthcare, infrastructure, art and music, all of which enhance humanity rather than potentially annihilate it?
Joseph Cirincione is president of Ploughshares Fund, a global security foundation. He is the author of Nuclear Nightmares: Securing the World Before It Is Too Late and Deadly Arsenals: Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Threats. He is a member of Secretary of State John Kerry’s International Security Advisory Board.