Edited by Sam Thielman
Since the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Joe Biden has insisted that one of his primary goals is to avoid starting World War III. As someone with clear memories of the high Cold War (the Cuban missile crisis erupted just weeks before his 20th birthday), the president knows full well what the phrase has implied for nearly three-quarters of a century: a humanity-destroying nuclear war.
Yet this week, that same Biden administration took another affirmative leap toward that particular abyss. At the heart of its behemoth $813 billion defense budget request for FY2023, just submitted to Congress, is an all-out nuclear spending spree. The main item is $34.4 billion for “nuclear enterprise modernization.” In plain English, that means fleets of new nuclear bombers, submarines, and missiles — each one capable of killing hundreds of millions of people.
This is part of a mini-racket that dates back twelve years to when Biden was vice president. At that time, he and President Obama had been trying to get the Senate to ratify an arms reduction treaty called New START, which the administration had negotiated with Russia’s then-president Dmitry Medvedev. As Fred Kaplan details in The Bomb, a group of recalcitrant Republican senators pulled a bait and switch: In exchange for getting rid of old nukes, they got Obama to agree to new spending on “modernizing” the rest of the arsenal. Obama apparently took that to mean mostly updates and repairs.
Instead, Congress spent the next few years embarking on a new 30-year, $1.3 trillion new bomb-buying bonanza. Under Donald Trump — who once said of nukes, “If we had them, why can’t we use them?” — spending grew even more.
In 2021, Biden jacked up the Pentagon budget in an effort to convince Joe Manchin and other conservative Democrats to agree to his full domestic infrastructure program. It didn’t work — Manchin claimed at the eleventh hour that it was too expensive, even though using the most exaggerated numbers he could find the cost came in at half the yearly federal spending on war.
Now, with the focus on Russia and China, Biden’s war budget has expanded even further — including a full 24% year-on-year increase in spending on new nukes and nuclear weapons infrastructure.
The “modernization” isn’t all that’s in there, either. There’s also nearly $30 billion for missile defense and satellite warning systems used in event of a nuclear war, as well as $7.2 billion for a bunch of other missiles — including the development and deployment of ultra-fast, nuclear-capable hypersonic missiles like those allegedly fired by Russia into Ukraine in recent days.
In all, depending on how you add it up, that’s somewhere around $70 billion, just next year, to prepare for a future war that no one will win. By comparison, the administration is at this hour struggling to get Congress to agree to a $10 billion package to help Americans survive the very real and ongoing Covid pandemic, most of which would be actually be shuffling around money that’s already been approved.
Why are we just throwing unimaginable sums at bringing on the apocalypse? The reason, of course, is that a few people with excellent connections to the government want to get paid. Quoth Bloomberg:
One of the the biggest jumps in spending in the nuclear modernization budget would be for Northrop Grumman Corp.’s new B-21 bomber. The plane, capable of carrying both nuclear and conventional weapons, would get $5 billion in combined research and procurement, up about $2 billion from the current year.
Spending on the Columbia-class submarine, the Navy’s top program, would increase by $1.3 billion to $6.3 billion. The sub, built by General Dynamics Corp. and Huntington Ingalls Industries Inc., also can carry both nuclear and conventional missiles.
Boeing is also “poised to score billions,” thanks in large part to a likely windfall for its KC-46 Pegasus, an aerial refueling tanker that allows the B-52 to carry its nuclear payloads to be dropped anywhere in the world.
As is the custom when talking about nukes, these super-genocidal weapons are referred to throughout the budget request as “deterrents.” Russians use the same euphemism: The actual wording of Putin’s Feb. 27 order that put his nuclear weapons on high alert was to “transfer the deterrence forces of the Russian army to a special mode of combat duty.” The idea is that the only point of having the power to wipe out life on Earth is to “deter” your enemies from doing the same.
In that sense, the U.S. nuclear arsenal is essentially a multi-trillion-dollar scarecrow. But it’s a scarecrow the White House is tacitly admitting doesn’t currently work. We currently have the ability to kill everyone in Russia who is not in possession of a luxury bunker in the Altai Mountains. What will our new fleets of bombers, missiles, and submarines do that our current arsenal cannot? How many more do we need to do it? No one seems to know; no one at the White House or in Congress seems to even be curious about the answer.
Instead, we’re just throwing away trillions needed for schools, highways, and public health, not to mention ending the climate crisis, supposedly just to impress our enemies. You might even call it appeasement.
The Russians are at least pretending to have worked out a clever workaround to the old problem of Mutually Assured Destruction — they’ll just use smaller nukes! Except as Cheryl Rofer notes, “Nobody has come up with a strategy for using tactical nuclear weapons that doesn’t turn into a strategic [meaning all-out, world-ending] exchange.” I’d hope someone could communicate that to the Russians, but many powerful Americans seem to be convincing themselves of a similar version of the same malignant fantasy.
Even Biden’s just released 2022 Nuclear Posture Review notably doesn’t rule out “first use” — meaning that Americans, like the Russians, are on record as being officially willing to start Armageddon.
It may not be the enemy that this theater is meant for at all. “Deterrence” is a much more palatable sales pitch than advertising the weapons’ actual, designed purpose. It would be harder for, say, Northrop Grumman CEO Kathy J. Warden to defend her estimated $20 million annual compensation package if it were described as advance compensation for her help in incinerating billions of people.
I would not be surprised if Warden, like most others in the complex — and home and abroad — are deeply in denial about what all this money and technological power are meant to do. They will always and forever hide behind the ideology of deterrence. But as the Russian invasion of Ukraine makes abundantly clear (as if it wasn’t already), nuclear weapons don’t deter anyone from war — at least, non-nuclear war, so far. All nuclear weapons have done for seventy-odd years is to give the big powers a license to invade whoever they want, and for the craven to amass fortunes and build political careers on the bet that they can spend unlimited sums of money on building the most fearful and awesome weapons ever devised without any of them being used. It’s a fool’s bet that we may all end up paying for. If we somehow get out of the present crisis, we need to stop letting our leaders make that bet in the future.
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And if you missed it, earlier this week I dropped some bonus material from Gangsters of Capitalism in a special podcast. It contains a reading, audio snippets, and a photograph I took from inside the Somozas’ underground bunker in the Nicaraguan countryside. It’s for paid subscribers to The Racket, but there’s a link to a free seven-day trial if you click the “read more” button below. More like this to come: