The devastation wrought on the Japanese city of Hiroshima seven decades ago will always be a powerful reminder of America’s responsibility to work toward a world free of nuclear weapons. President Obama’s historic trip to Japan this week reminds us that the horror of nuclear war remains as potent a concern as it was nearly 71 years ago, when the Enola Gay dropped its atomic payload on Hiroshima, killing 140,000 people.
We have made important progress in the past several years. The United States and Russia have slowed the nuclear arms race by reducing the size of their nuclear arsenals. Beginning in 2018, each country will have no more than 1,550 deployed strategic warheads after implementation of the New START treaty.
But that progress came about as a result of a Faustian bargain. In exchange for Republican support for passage of New START in 2010, Obama promised to fund major upgrades to our nuclear arsenal. Since then, the extent of these upgrades and their cost has ballooned. Today, it is estimated that Obama’s so-called nuclear modernization plan will end up costing US taxpayers nearly $1 trillion over 30 years.
This alleged modernization plan is better described as a nuclear weapons expansion plan. It would create new nuclear weapons, including a dangerous new nuclear air-launched cruise missile at the cost of more than $20 billion over 20 years. Nuclear-armed cruise missiles are especially destabilizing because they are difficult to distinguish from non-nuclear versions, and their deployment could lead to accidental nuclear escalation in a conflict with Russia or China.
The Defense Department has justified this new nuclear cruise missile by arguing that it is needed for purposes “beyond deterrence,” and for “respond[ing] proportionately to a limited nuclear attack.” In the simplest terms, this new nuclear cruise missile would be a war-fighting weapon, not just a deterrent. Obama must make clear that there is no such thing as a “limited” nuclear war as his administration officials have suggested. He should cancel funding for this weapon that makes fighting a nuclear war more imaginable.
Alarmingly, plans to build more usable nuclear weapons threaten to trigger a renewed nuclear arms race with Russia and China. The ultimate cost of Obama’s bargain with Senate Republicans must not be a new race to nuclear annihilation.
If Obama wants to keep the pledge he made in 2009 to “reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security,” he must rein in this nuclear spending insanity. The lesson of Hiroshima is clear: Nuclear weapons must never be used again.
If the United States wants other countries to reduce their nuclear arsenals and restrain their nuclear war plans, it must take the lead. It cannot preach nuclear temperance from a bar stool. Instead of wasting billions of dollars on dangerous new nuclear weapons that do nothing to keep our nation safe, Obama should scale back his nuclear weapons expansion plan. The United States already has the world’s most powerful military capabilities; it does not need any new nuclear weapons.
Instead of lighting the match that could ignite a new nuclear arms race, the United States should lead the world in reducing the threat of nuclear war.
Senator Edward J. Markey, author of “Nuclear Peril: The Politics of Proliferation,’’ is founder of the Congressional Nonproliferation Caucus.