Adam Weinstein writes: On April 5, 2009, President Barack Obama took the stage before 20,000 people in Prague’s Hradcany Square to offer an ambitious global vision. “Today, I state clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons,” he told the open-air audience in the former Eastern Bloc capital. “To put an end to Cold War thinking, we will reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy, and urge others to do the same.”
The timing of his bold promise seemed perfect. Russia was ready to whittle down its destructive power; a year later, Obama and President Dmitri Medvedev would sign a treaty limiting both countries to 1,500 active warheads—though still enough to annihilate millions of people, a 50 percent reduction to each nation’s atomic arsenal. Back home, lawmakers on Capitol Hill were scrutinizing the federal budget for unnecessary spending, and nuclear weapons no longer appeared to be off limits.
Even the military brass was moving away from relying upon nuclear deterrence. The Pentagon’s 2010 Nuclear Posture Review (PDF) concluded that “[t]he massive nuclear arsenal we inherited from the Cold War era of bipolar military confrontation is poorly suited to address the challenges posed by suicidal terrorists and unfriendly regimes seeking nuclear weapons.”
But shrinking America’s nuclear arsenal has turned out to be far easier said than done. Despite the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) cuts, federal spending on the atomic stockpile is actually beyond Cold War levels, driven by congressional hawks and powerful nuclear labs eager to “modernize” the arsenal and fund projects that could spark a new arms race.
During the Cold War, the United States spent, on average, $35 billion a year on its nuclear weapons complex. Today, it spends an estimated $55 billion. The nuclear weapons budget is spread across the Department of Defense, the Department of Energy, and the Department of Homeland Security, and the government doesn’t publicly disclose how much it spends on its various aspects, from maintaining our nuclear arsenal to defending against other countries’ nukes. Altogether, it spent at least $52.4 billion on nuclear weapons in 2008, the last year anyone attempted to piece together the total cost, according to the Carnegie Endowment for Peace. (And that doesn’t include classified programs.) That was five times the size of the State Department’s budget, seven times the EPA’s, and 14 times what the DOE spent on everything else it does.