U.S. defense decisions amid fiscal constraints

The U.S. Senate passed its long-awaited defense bill on December 4th, authorizing a billion budget for defense spending in FY 2013. During the coming week, the “conference committee” will be tasked with reconciling this bill with the House version. This process is taking place against the backdrop of intense debates over the looming “fiscal cliff”: the across-the-board cuts which threaten to come into effect if a deal on public spending is not agreed by January 1.

Amid this intense political wrangling, some Members of Congress have raised questions about the relevance and necessity of continued heavy investment in the U.S. nuclear program. Forty-five Members of Congress, led by Congressman Markey from Massachusetts, appealed to House and Senate leadership to consider a billion reduction in nuclear weapons spending over the next decade – arguing that this money would be better spent on U.S. healthcare, education and medical research. By the same token, Congresswoman Barbara Lee, from California, called for “wasteful defense weapons programs” to be thrown “off the cliff”.

While strategic defense decisions will, rightly, not be driven by budget alone, the reality is that money matters. And as public spending pressures continue to mount, they may force specific aspects of the U.S. nuclear program under the spotlight. The maintenance and modernization of the weapons themselves, as well as their delivery systems – including the B-61 bomb (the oldest weapon in the U.S. nuclear arsenal), the F-35 Dual-Capable Aircraft (DCA), and U.S. Ohio Class replacement submarines – are some of the most expensive programs in history. In particular, questions around the maintenance of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in Europe, as part of the U.S. commitment to NATO extended deterrence, are not new. They have been discussed as part of NATO’s strategic posture for years, but now the costs for modernizing the current arsenal of B-61s have more than doubled over original estimates to around bn.

As European nations work to address their own fiscal constraints, and in the context of public opposition to investments in nuclear systems, questions are likely to continue arising over the fate of the DCA required to carry the U.S. nuclear bombs. In the coming years, European parliaments may choose to not to approve spending for aircraft merely to retain nuclear-capable versions. German Foreign Minister, Guido Westerwelle, has continued to be vocal in his support for nuclear disarmament – not least as the German parliament debates the future structure of the German air force. By the same token, those engaged in the nuclear debate in Europe are watching to see where new Dutch Foreign Minister, Frans Timmermans, who previously strongly advocated the removal of B-61s from Europe, comes out.

Arguments will continue to be made for the retention of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in Europe. And as in the United States, budget considerations will not be the sole driver for any major shifts in defense policy in Europe. However, while they will not determine outcomes, they provide a good incentive to look critically at where today’s defense threats really are; what is required to address them; and where limited resources are most appropriately spent.
These are the views of the author.

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