Cutting Nukes: In An Era of Tough Sacrifices, It’s One Easy Decision

by Jennifer Knox

Jennifer Knox, a sophomore at Cornell College, recently joined the Global Zero team as an intern through the Cornell Fellows program. Her work focuses on logistics planning for the 2012 Reaching Zero summit at Yale, tracking nuclear news, and researching policy objectives.

The new congressional Budget Control Act mandates cuts of $487 billion from the defense budget over the next 10 years, sending the Pentagon into a frenzy working on a response. Dr. Lawrence Korb, who will be speaking at Global Zero’s Student Summit at Yale in February, joined colleagues Spencer Ackerman and Heather Hurlburt on a panel to discuss recommendations for a leaner and more efficient military. I attended The Best Defense: Protecting America in an Age of Austerity panel at the Center for National Policy on January 10, 2012. While questions about the nuclear arsenal did not feature prominently in the conversation, I read between the lines to get a military perspective on the role nuclear weapons should play in America’s defense.

Spencer Ackerman, Scott Bates, Dr. Lawrence Korb and Heather Hurlburt

All three panelists addressed the general anxiety surrounding budget cuts. Dr. Korb, former Assistant Secretary of Defense under the Reagan administration, described rampant claims that the cut would leave the U.S. unacceptably vulnerable as “much ado about nothing.” He said that in pursuing these cuts we follow a long American tradition of scaling down defense spending after an extensive period of war. The defense budget is not and never has been a machine of perpetual growth, and this 487 billion dollar figure only reflects 8% of total planned spending. 

Dr. Korb went on to support the need for change and adaptability in the military’s mission in order to respond to contemporary developments in the world. The three panelists agree that our large nuclear arsenal is no longer a necessity. Nuclear weapons were mentioned when the panelists discussed areas where cuts should be made. The resounding message from the three experts was that the nuke budget should be cut. Still, the panelists devoted less time to the issues of the nuclear arsenal than to other defense strategy reforms.

Heather Hurlburt, former Special Assistant to the President and State Department Policy Planning Staff member under the Clinton administration, described a strange tension between political and military responses when it comes to the possibility of cutting nukes. She revealed that many authority figures within the military were actually in favor of re-evaluating the role of nuclear weapons in defense strategies; spending fewer resources on maintaining them; and emphasizing them less within operational planning. The responsibility for pushing funding to develop and test nuclear weapons lies with Congress. The Statement on Defense Strategic Guidance issued by Leon E. Panetta, Secretary of Defense, articulates the difficulties of this divergence between civilian and military leadership while planning these cuts. He insists that, “savings must be achieved in a balanced manner, with everything on the table, including politically sensitive areas that will likely provoke opposition from parts of the Congress, from industry and from advocacy groups.”

This panel conversation showed me just how easy it is to create controversy where none should exist. As Panetta said, there is no reason that we need to “choose between our national security and fiscal responsibility.” After attending the panel discussion, here’s my take: cutting our nuclear arsenal should be our first priority. It seems such wasteful spending distracts not only from civilian priorities but from defense objectives as well.

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