In a historic speech at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin recently, President Barack Obama declared his administration’s intention to negotiate a one-third reduction in U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear arsenals.
The Cold War is over. The Soviet Union collapsed more than 20 years ago. There is now a bipartisan consensus among military leaders and other defense experts that our nuclear arsenal is far too large and wastes taxpayer dollars that could be much more effectively used to support our troops and rebuild here at home.
It is crucial that the public understands that this declaration only came after a thorough internal review by the Departments of Defense, State and Energy, who share responsibility for managing U.S. nuclear weapons. At the highest levels of our national leadership, there is now agreement that reducing our nuclear arsenal is an essential step, enabling us to refocus on 21st century national security challenges, including slowing the spread of nuclear weapons.
The possession of thousands of nuclear warheads by the U.S. and Russia remains the biggest potential threat to global survival. While improved relations between our two countries make a full-scale nuclear war less likely, there is no question that the number of nuclear warheads our two sides hold could still devastate human life on our fragile planet.
Even with the modest reductions Obama has proposed, our country would continue to maintain several thousand nuclear warheads. As a physician, I know the humanitarian consequences of even one of these weapons being detonated in a major city, let alone the impact of hundreds or thousands of them being used.
Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Angus King, I-Maine, will play a key role in determining whether we continue to waste billions on expanded nuclear weapons programs or instead maintain the arsenal determined to be needed by our national security leaders and use the money saved to pay down our debt and ensure our economic competitiveness.
One particularly egregious program is the B61 Life Extension program to upgrade old nuclear gravity bombs originally intended for a now-outdated mission of preventing a Soviet attack on Europe. If unchecked, this wasteful, unnecessary program will cost taxpayers more than $10 billion. And it is not even clear if these weapons are wanted by most Europeans.
As the Senate takes up these issues, it is important that we are clear about the trade-offs resulting from investing more money in our bloated nuclear arsenal. Major General Roger Blunt wrote in The Hill: “Every dollar spent on nuclear weapons is a dollar not available to equip our troops for 21st Century threats.”
As our troops return home after two costly wars, we have an obligation to care for our veterans. A Physicians for Social Responsibility report, “ Shock and Awe Hits Home,” documents the many persistent health challenges and costs that this generation of veterans faces for years to come.
A 2013 assessment by the Arms Control Association estimated that the U.S. could save $58 billion over the next decade by reducing its nuclear force to 1,000 or fewer nuclear warheads. Those savings, at a time when we are losing teachers, emergency responders, and investment in infrastructure, could be used to serve far more important priorities.
Obama’s speech in Berlin charts a path forward, out of the murder-suicide pact the nuclear weapons states have gotten us all into. As key leaders in Congress, Collins and King have an opportunity to help lead us to safer ground. To do so, they must oppose any further expansions of nuclear weapons spending and instead support our troops and Pentagon efforts to refocus on emerging threats and support essential programs to rebuild our infrastructure and our economy.
Peter Wilk of Portland serves on the Board of Maine Physicians for Social Responsibility. He previously worked as national executive director of Physicians for Social Responsibility in Washington, D.C.