This month marks 76 years since the devastating atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki: more than three-quarters of a century during which the United States has spent countless dollars to maintain a nuclear arsenal for the purpose of “deterrence.” President Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin recently reaffirmed President Ronald Reagan’s 1982 declaration that “nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” The Hiroshima and Nagasaki anniversaries are a time to reflect on our decisions about nuclear weapons and the resources we commit to them. The citizens of the United States continue to pay an ever-increasing price for nuclear weapons even as we attempt to confront the demands of a global pandemic.

The pandemic has made crystal clear the gross inadequacy of the funding for the U.S. public health system. Trends in public health expenditures were presented in a January 2016 article in the American Journal of Public Health. The authors noted the decline in per capita public health spending, expenditures that were projected to be 25 percent less in 2023 than in 2022.

By comparison, in 2019 the nine nations with nuclear weapons spent a total of $72.9 billion on nuclear weapons in one year. The amount that the U.S. spent was $35.4 billion, which was a mere $2.1 billion less than the other amount nations combined.

With all that in mind, the priorities for U.S. military and defense budget contained in the National Defense Authorization Act need to be reexamined. If approved in its current form, the current NDAA would spend $777.9 billion in the next year. Of special concern, the Biden administration has included $15.2 million for just the first year to develop a new submarine-based nuclear-armed sea-launched cruise missile. For good reason, its predecessor, the nuclear-armed Tomahawk cruise missile, was removed from U.S. submarines and relegated to storage by President George H.W. Bush. In 2010, the same missiles were determined to be redundant and fully retired by the Obama administration.

The Trump administration’s 2018 nuclear posture review resurrected the supposed need for a new nuclear sea-launched cruise missile. in its quest to build up “low-yield nuclear” weapons in the U.S. arsenal. During his campaign in 2019, Joe Biden stated that a new nuclear sea-launched cruise missile was a “bad idea.” However, this “bad idea” is now included in the 2022 budget. Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Harker has indicated that nuclear sea-launched cruise missiles would undermine the Navy’s ability to complete its missions. The U.S. nuclear arsenal already has at least three options for “lower-yield” nuclear weapons: the B61 gravity bomb, the W80 air-launched cruise missile and the W76-2 sea-launched ballistic missile. Of even greater importance, a nuclear sea-launched cruise missile cannot be differentiated by adversaries from a conventional missile. Thus, as the United States frequently utilizes cruise missiles in war (2,200 have been launched since 1991), this very real potential confusion quickly amplifies the significant risk of accidental nuclear war.

The good news is that Sen. Edward Markey has introduced a bill (S.1862, Smarter Approaches to Nuclear Expenditures Act) that has been referred to the Committee on Armed Services. Markey cites a 2020 Congressional Budget Office study that projected the ability to reduce current nuclear force plans and save as much as $13.6 billion in the next decade. The bill contains 11 specific reductions in spending, including a prohibition on the dangerous new submarine-launched cruise missile.

Sen. Angus King serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee, and on July 21, the committee voted by a vote of 23 to 3 (King in favor) to advance the National Defense Authorization Act to the Senate floor. It is a disappointing development that King voted to include funding for the nuclear sea-launched cruise missile. We urge King to consider the savings possible in spending for nuclear forces and use the money to correct the inadequate funding of public health, domestic infrastructure and the disasters resulting from climate change.

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