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Senate Passes Defense Bill That Would Bolster Nuclear Weapons Programs

The US may be provoking a deadly nuclear arms race.

Activists wearing masks to look like President Trump and North Korean Leader Kim Jong-un pose next to a Styrofoam effigy of a nuclear bomb while protesting in front of the Brandenburg Gate near the US Embassy on September 13, 2017, in Berlin, Germany. The Senate has approved a massive defense bill authorizing increased spending on the US nuclear arsenal. (Photo: Omer Messinger / Getty Images)

The Senate approved a massive defense policy bill by a vote of 89 to 9 on Monday that is raising concerns about nuclear weapons proliferation amid rising tensions between the United States and countries such as North Korea and Russia.

The Senate version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), an annual piece of “must-pass” legislation that shapes dozens of policies at the Pentagon, would authorize $640 billion in discretionary defense spending and an additional $60 billion for overseas military operations, such as the ongoing war efforts in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria.

What’s the value of $700 billion? It’s more than twice the size of Denmark’s entire economy, and the same amount of money that the government spent bailing out banks during the financial collapse in 2008. Both the Senate and House versions of the bill name amounts that exceed President Trump’s request for military funding by tens of billions of dollars.

The numbers put forth in the defense authorization bill set the bar for future defense spending legislation and policy determinations. As an authorization bill, this legislation does not actually permit the expenditure of those funds; an appropriations bill is needed for that.

The bill authorizes billions of dollars for nuclear weapons and nonproliferation programs, including $65 million for developing a cruise missile that nonproliferation groups fear could derail the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, a landmark nuclear treaty between the US and Russia.

Critics say increasing spending on the US nuclear arsenal could trigger other countries to invest in their own capabilities and add to the number of highly destructive weapons on the planet.

“We [are] already investing in nuclear weapons to a tune of about $20 million a year, so we really have to ask ourselves what the point of an increased investment would be, considering these are weapons that should never be used,” said Lindsay Koshgarian, director of the National Priorities Project, a group that tracks military spending, in an interview with Truthout.

The US has accused Russia of violating the INF Treaty by developing and fielding a land-based cruise missile with nuclear capabilities, a charge Russia has denied. The Senate’s version of NDAA authorizes research and development of a mid-range, road-mobile cruise missile system that could carry a nuclear warhead, similar to the missile Russia allegedly developed.

The Senate Armed Services Committee claims that the money could only be used for research and development of the missile, not testing and deployment, so it would not violate the treaty in the way that Russia allegedly has. Rather, the committee says, it would close a “capability” gap opened by Russia.

However, developing such a weapon would suck money away from nonproliferation programs while sowing divisions within NATO and giving Russia an excuse to reject the treaty and deploy large numbers of noncompliant missiles without constraint, according to the Arms Control Association.

Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) added an amendment to the bill that requires the defense secretary to submit a report to Congress on the rationale and strategic implications for developing such a weapon before the $65 million can be spent. Warren also included an amendment asking the Department of Defense to consider existing treaty obligations in an upcoming Nuclear Posture Review. The House rejected similar measures offered by Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Oregon).

The House version of the bill provides $25 million to develop conventional (non-nuclear) land-based cruise missiles and requires the president to submit a report on Russian compliance with the INF treaty within 15 months. If Russia is determined to be out of compliance, the treaty would no longer bind the US, effectively dissolving a decades-old nonproliferation agreement between the two countries that control about 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons.

The House bill would also block funding for extending the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, a nuclear nonproliferation agreement considered a bright spot in US-Russia relations, unless Russia returns to compliance with the INF Treaty.

In addition to turmoil with Russia, observers are also concerned about the rising nuclear tensions with North Korea, which has recently drawn fiery statements from President Trump after bucking the international community and running tests of nuclear weapons and missile delivery systems.

Speaking before the United Nations on Tuesday, President Trump said the US would have no choice but to “totally destroy” North Korea if forced to defend itself or its allies against the country’s aggression. On Monday, Defense Secretary James Mattis confirmed that he had discussed the possibility of reintroducing tactical US nuclear weapons to the Korean Peninsula with his South Korean counterpart, but he did not say whether the two reached a decision, according to reports.

“NDAA buys into renewed investment from the US on nuclear weapons, and that is something that is particularly concerning right now given that there is also this uncertainty around what our North Korea policy looks like,” Koshgarian said.

The bill also includes $8.5 billion to expand missile defense capabilities at home and even in outer space, despite concerns that the military’s existing technology is no sure shot for knocking North Korean missiles carrying nuclear warheads out of the air.

Koshgarian noted that North Korea’s nuclear provocations may make the nuclear spending more appealing to voters, but she said it’s important that security investments are strategic and support programs that actually make us safer.

“I think there’s always a temptation to believe that throwing more money at the Pentagon is going to make us safer,” Koshgarian said. “It would be nice if things were that easy, but it doesn’t actually work that way.”

Koshgarian pointed out that the government has already spent $2 trillion on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but violence and political chaos still consume that region of the world.

The NDAA builds on an effort launched by President Obama to update and refurbish nuclear weapons systems, including warheads delivered by submarines, international ballistic missiles and bomber planes.

Supporters say this investment is needed to maintain existing stockpiles and ensure the US has a strong nuclear deterrent, but Koshgarian and other critics fear it could inspire a new nuclear arms race internationally and undermine the embattled Iran nuclear deal. Koshgarian said policy makers and the public must consider how the decisions they make today will impact nuclear policy for the rest of the 21st Century.

“Once the US buys in, we are not going to easily buy back out of a nuclear program,” Koshgarian said, adding that powerful military contractors have a strong interest in maintaining nuclear programs once they have been initiated.

The Congressional Budget Office reported earlier this year that the US will spend $400 billion on nuclear weapons over the next decade, and the Arms Control Association estimates that it could climb to $1.5 trillion by 2050 when adjusted to inflation.

The Senate version of the NDAA does include an amendment requiring the Pentagon to improve efficiency and management of its nuclear programs in order to lower costs.

The US defense budget easily dwarfs that of any other country on the planet, and the NDAA would authorize an annual budget for the Pentagon that is even larger than the ones it received during the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Pentagon already receives more than half of federal discretionary spending, but if Congress were to honor the White House’s requests for domestic cuts, the portion of the discretionary budget that is earmarked for defense could top 68 percent.

However, since the bill does not actually appropriate any money, Congress faces difficult budget negotiations going forward. Democrats typically use defense spending as leverage to maintain or increase funding for domestic programs. If the funding levels specified in the NDAA were to be approved, a 2011 law that placed limits on military spending would need to be lifted or otherwise circumvented, because the bill outlines spending that would easily exceeds those limits.

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