New START: Fewer Nukes, but More Money

Senators John Kerry and Richard Lugar at a news conference following a cloture vote on New START. Mark Wilson / Getty Images

With fingertips nervously tapping desks in the White House, the Kremlin, and the offices of antinuke folks around the world, the Senate in the final hours of its term has ratified the New START agreement, which will force both the United States and Russia to dismantle a good chunk of their nuclear-weapons arsenals. The two countries agree to limit the number of nuclear warheads to 1,550 each, down from a ceiling of 2,200. The pact, signed by President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on April 8, also establishes a system for monitoring and verification.

Ratification, on a 71-26 vote largely along party lines, is a huge win for Obama, undoubtedly the foremost foreign-policy achievement of his administration so far. But at the heart of the triumph is a glaring incongruity: New START builds on decades of the U.S. slashing its way toward a nuke-free world. So why is Washington now poised to spend tens of billions more on nuclear weapons in the next decade?

Mainly because nobody's telling Washington not to. "Sen. John Kyl was making a point," says Sharon Squassoni, director of the proliferation-prevention program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "Many parts of the nuclear-weapons complex have not been updated. But estimates of what it takes to modernize vary widely." And in this case, the "expert witnesses" are the same ones cashing in.

For months Kyl (R-Ariz.) stood like a roadblock in front of New START. He argued that the treaty offered the U.S. no advantage over Moscow and crippled plans for a missile-defense system in Europe. But his qualm, which translated into spending big bucks, centered on "modernization" of the U.S.'s nuclear-weapons complex. Speaking of the network of nuclear-weapons labs on the Senate floor earlier this month, he said the country's "facilities are inadequate."

To placate him—and the Republican senators in his corner—the Obama White House assembled a plan with $84.5 billion to be spent over 10 years to modernize America's nuclear cache, a marked increase over the kind of money that trickled into the labs during the George W. Bush administration. The head of the National Nuclear Security Administration during that time, former ambassador Linton Brooks, said in April of the new increase, "I will say flatly, I ran that place for five years and I'd have killed for [this] budget."

So although U.S. stockpiles of nuclear weapons have dropped from 22,217 in 1989 to about 5,000 today and are expected to continue to decrease in the next decade, Washington will spend boatloads more money—approximately 20 percent more—on the nuclear-industrial complex in coming years.

It's not so easy to call this nuclear pork, however. Yes, the money will be plowed back into the American economy, so senators are indeed bringing home the bacon. But the bigger issue is a lack of oversight. Aging nuclear weapons are dangerous antiques to have lying around. The working mantra in the nuke business is that warheads across the country need to be safe, secure, and reliable. Only a fool would argue the point. But who, exactly, decides what that means?

"The lab directors go before Congress asking for money, and it's a shakedown," says Daryl Kimball, of the Arms Control Association. "Of course, some of this spending is well justified, but there's a policy debate about whether we need a uranium-processing facility of this size or how extensive the refurbishment programs need to be."

Kyl has laid out exactly what kind of work needs to be done to America's warheads (read his detailed memo in PDF form here), but in short, as weapons get older, scientists have to replace electronics, engineer new security tests, and keep on top of aging devices that possess unparalleled destructive power. "Imagine an automotive expert working in a garage built in 1942," the memo reads. "The roof leaks and his tools are becoming outdated. Moreover, he has responsibility for a fleet of eight racing Ferraris, which have been sitting in storage for about 30 years. The last time any engine was turned on was 1992, but this 'steward' is responsible for assuring that, at any given moment, each of the eight finely-tuned cars will respond to the key turn."

But what passes for informed debate over how much more money the country needs to take care of fewer nukes, in this instance, doesn't pass muster. "The labs have been arguing for several years they need more money," says former ambassador Richard Burt, U.S. chair of the group Global Zero. "And the labs are pretty effective lobbyists for their interests." Add to the equation that several of these labs are now run by defense contractors, and the spike in spending not only looks like a logical contradiction (lacking a convincing explanation) but it starts to smell bad.

Going into the new year, these tens of billions in spending come, of course, in this new, supposed age of austerity. We have to quit "wasting billions of dollars," Kyl himself said during the debate. Indeed. On the grand bargain the White House struck to win Kyl's support for the New START (ironically he ultimately ended up voting against ratification), Washington has written even more gargantuan checks, relying only on the good word of the folks asking for the money.