Possible savings from paring down the arsenal

Republican presidential candidate Senator John McCain (Arizona) recently made a speech at the Los Angeles World Affairs Council and said: We should work to reduce nuclear arsenals all around the world, starting with our own, adding: We do not need all the weapons currently in our arsenal.

His proclamation took many by surprise. One might expect someone like Senator McCain – who has a reputation for being strong on defense – to place the burden on other countries for starting a chain of disarmament.

In his speech, McCain briefly mentioned US obligations to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and implied that he understood the NPT’s grand bargain that those countries with nuclear weapons should make good-faith efforts to reduce their nuclear weapons stockpiles and allow other states to have access to the peaceful uses of nuclear technology in exchange for non-nuclear weapons countries foregoing any future pursuit of such weapons.

He did not discuss the other bargain that is associated with the United States reducing its nuclear arsenal. This bargain would be the billions saved by the federal government and ultimately US taxpayers.

Steve Kosiak of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments estimated in 2006 that the United States spends about billion annually on nuclear-related forces and activities (Spending on US Strategic Nuclear Forces: Plans and Options for the 21st Century). In one nuclear arms reduction scenario, Miriam Pemberton and Lawrence Korb estimated that for FY2008, the United States could have saved .5 billion annually by reducing the nuclear arsenal to the minimum level needed for credible deterrence, which they sketch as a deployed arsenal of 600 weapons with another 400 in reserve (A Unified Security Budget for FY2008).

Kosiak estimated that reducing the nuclear stockpile to 1,000 nuclear warheads could result in savings ranging from million up to billion annually. Other scenarios exist and various levels of savings would result, but with a stagnant economy and rising prices hitting the pocketbooks of Americans, not to mention a record national debt of trillion, every billion saved would be a welcome relief.

Even a purportedly fiscal conservative like Senator McCain could be expected to make an argument like this one.

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