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Commentary: Economic security is national security

POSTED: November 6, 2011 12:30 a.m.

Robert Gard

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Despite political wrangling and election-year pressures to please their respective constituencies, Democrats and Republicans do agree on at least two fundamental issues.

There is a consensus that America needs to get its economic house in order. The federal debt and the growing national deficit must be brought under control, and we need to fix the economy to include getting Americans back to work. At the same time, there is agreement that cuts in federal spending shouldn't jeopardize our priority national security interests or weaken our ability to face the very real security threats of the 21st century.

In fact, these two areas of agreement are joined at the hip. Our economic strength is the foundation of our national security. As the recently retired chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen has pointed out, "The single greatest threat to national security is from the national debt."

With the congressional supercommittee charged with crafting a set of recommendations to reduce spending by at least $1.2 trillion over the next 10 years, these areas of agreement need to be a starting point for moving forward in anticipation of tougher decisions ahead.

The reality is that wasteful military spending weakens our national security every bit as much as other ill-considered federal spending.

According to Air Force Secretary Michael Donley, "Defense cannot be exempted from efforts to get our financial house in order." The bottom line is that cutting funding for strategically outdated defense programs has to be a part of the package as we craft an economic path forward.

With that in mind, the supercommittee would be hard-pressed to find a better example of wasteful spending divorced from any coherent national security rationale than the proposed budget for nuclear weapons and related programs. With an estimated $700 billion in spending proposed over the next decade for everything from new nuclear submarines and bombers to a new complex of bomb plants, one might think that it was still 1980 and we were immersed in an existential struggle with the Soviet Union.

Obviously, that isn't the case. The struggle we face today involves such 21st century challenges as terrorism and cyber war that cannot be confronted with nuclear weapons. We should be more concerned with maintaining troop readiness than with maintaining a redundant nuclear weapons capability.

The United States can spend less on excessive nuclear weapons programs without compromising its security because America's nuclear arsenal is far more than adequate for its principal mission of deterrence of nuclear attacks against the United States or our allies. Even after major reductions, our nuclear arsenal would still dwarf the programs of China and any other potential adversary. That's a bargain that would help restore our economic health.

Fortunately, this prospect holds some sway at the Pentagon, which should facilitate bipartisan action. Former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. James Cartwright recently noted that no cohesive military strategy underlies our proposed nuclear expenditures, "We haven't really exercised the mental gymnastics, the intellectual capital, on that (what is required for nuclear deterrence) yet. ... I'm pleased that it's starting, but I wouldn't be in favor of building too much until we had that discussion."

Driven as much by inertia as Capitol Hill's earmark-oriented spending habits, these misguided spending priorities are being questioned by senior military leaders who recognize that our economic circumstances have changed. The Commander of the U.S. Strategic Command, General Robert Kehler, has noted that pouring money into these nuclear weapons programs is unsustainable: "We're not going to be able to go forward with weapon systems that cost what weapon systems cost today. Case in point is (the) Long-Range Strike (bomber). Case in point is the Trident (submarine) replacement. ... The list goes on."

A contingent of "deficit hawks" has also begun to make the same argument. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., a consistent supporter of defense spending, has proposed a deficit reduction plan that would cut $79 billion in spending on nuclear weapon systems over the next decade by reducing the U.S. nuclear arsenal to below the New START limit of 1,550 deployed warheads this despite the fact that he opposed the treaty.

When all is said and done, cutting funding for nuclear weapons programs no longer needed must be part of resolving our economic woes.
An economically strong America is essential to a secure America.

Today, we're faced with new threats such as cyber warfare, but our budget is still built upon old threats of an arms race with the Soviet Union. The Cold War ended two decades ago, we must adapt to these modern threats to ensure our continued strength in the 21st century.

Robert G. Gard Jr., former director of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies’ Center in Bologna, Italy, is chairman of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.


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