U.S. Marine officers are notoriously dismissive of those who talk about strategy. "Strategy?" a Marine who served in Vietnam says. "Here was our strategy: hey-diddle-diddle, straight-up-the-middle." The description rings true: the Marine Corps’ most famous fights were straight-ahead affairs that gave the Corps its most celebrated moments: at Belleau Wood (in World War One), at Tarawa, Iwo Jima and Okinawa (in World War Two), at Inchon (during Korea), at Hue (in Vietnam) and, most recently during the battles for Fallujah, back in 2004. Now, it seems, all of that is changing.
In August of last year, Marine Corps Commandant David Berger published his Commandant's Planning Guidance, a detailed recasting of the Marine Corps’ force structure. By any measure, Berger's guidance marked a breathtaking shift away from the service's urban combat focus and its follow-on mandate of "countering violent extremists in the Middle East" to a "great power/peer level competition, with special emphasis on the Indo Pacific…" The shift, Berger admits, is sweeping: "from inland to littoral, and from non-state actor to peer competitor." The guidance reduces tank companies (from 7 to 0), artillery batteries (from 21 to 5), infantry battalions (from 24 to 21), amphibious vehicle companies (from 6 to 4), helicopter attack squadrons (from 7 to 5), and the number of F-35Bs in its air squadrons. The guidance eliminates law enforcement battalions and bridging companies. And the force itself will be cut by some 12,000 personnel over a period of ten years. More simply: Berger's guidance ("to be clear, it's not really a new strategy," one senior Marine officer notes, "it's more like a new operational concept") cuts structure in favor of adopting "long range precision fires, advanced reconnaissance capabilities, unmanned systems and resilient networks."
The shift is here to stay: Berger clamped a non-disclosure requirement on participants in the wargames that led to the rethinking and, just last week, cancelled the "Metropolis II" exercise testing tactics the Marines would adopt to fight in cities. Instead, the service will focus on building a new Marine Littoral Regiment (an MLR) that would allow it to operate on small atolls and islands against a projected threat in the Pacific — read: China. Berger's new MLR is billed as "dispersed, agile and constantly relocating" (a combat team, a logistics element and an anti-air battalion), and delivered to the battleground by a yet-to-be-designed class of amphibious ships. Dispersed and agile? For Berger's critics, the MLR looks more like a Navy landing party (of some 1800 swabees) than an all-arms 3600 trooper Marine regiment of hardcore fighters. Berger would almost certainly reject the claim, but his guidance ties his service more closely to the Navy than it has been since the Marines landed on Guadalcanal. "During World War II, we as a Service, clearly understood that Marines operated in support of the Navy's sea control mission," the guidance argues. "In subsequent years, the luxury of presumptive maritime superiority deluded us into thinking the Navy existed to support 'Marine' operations ashore. That era was a historic anomaly, and we need to re-focus on how we will fulfill our mandate to support the fleet."
Berger's guidance earned initial praise, even from would-be detractors ("it's one of the most well-written documents to come out of the Pentagon in a long while," a U.S. Army force planner admitted), as well as a host of respected military thinkers, including Dr. James Lacey, a former U.S. infantry officer and director for War, Policy, and Strategy at the Marine Corps War College. "I think Berger has boldly taken the Corps in a direction it must go as we reenter a period of great state competition," he wrote in an email. More crucially, Chris Brose, the former staff director of the Senate Armed Services Committee — whose questions to the services in 2018 helped to fuel Berger's thinking — told columnist David Ignatius that the new Marine guidance "looks reality in the face and says we've got to make changes. He doesn't hedge, he doesn't fudge. He makes choices. He's thrown down the gauntlet for the other services."
Not everyone agrees. An early and outspoken critic of Berger was James Webb, a former Marine Corps officer, Vietnam veteran and Secretary of the Navy. For Webb, the Berger guidance reads like a pointy-headed power point presentation cooked up by draft dodging Marine Corps wannabes: "Interestingly, when citing his philosophical inspiration at the outset of his proposal, General Berger chose to ignore two centuries of innovation and ground-breaking role models who guided the Marine Corps through some of its most difficult challenges," Webb wrote in a much-circulated article in The National Interest. "The giants of the past — John LeJeune, Arthur Vandegrift, Clifton Cates, Robert Barrow and Al Gray, just for starters — were passed over, in favor of a quote from a professor at the Harvard Business School who never served. Many Marines, past and present, view this gesture as a symbolic putdown of the Corps’ respected leadership methods and the historic results they have obtained."
Webb's critique is echoed by other experts, including Dr. Williamson "Wick" Murray, one of the nation's most respected defense thinkers. "The Marines are the most intellectual of all services," Murray told me in an extensive telephone interview, "so I'm a little surprised that the guidance leaves so many unanswered questions. It goes too far in stripping out capabilities, lacks important details on how these capabilities will be replaced and doesn't provide strategic solutions to strategic challenges. This guidance needs to be more nuanced and more flexible. It's not. It puts everything on the table for countering China, but if history teaches us anything it's that the enemy you get is rarely the one you plan for." Murray also notes the unease that greeted the guidance from the U.S. Navy. "The big assumption here is that the Navy wants to cooperate, that it'll be a willing partner. Maybe: but its yet to be seen whether they're capable of taking this on." A senior U.S. Navy strategist, speaking on background because of the sensitivity of the topic, agrees: "The Navy has largely ignored strategy and focused on what to buy and how to buy it, then figuring out how to use what they have." Which is to say that the Navy leadership seems strangely out of touch with what Berger is doing — a kind of hey-diddle-diddle-let's-buy-more-ships focus that retains its legacy platforms (Berger dubs them "large ships" — like aircraft carriers — "with large electronic, acoustic, or optical signatures") at the same time that the Marines are shedding theirs.
That the Navy seems relatively clueless is something of a surprise, since the Navy that was one of the first services to pivot to Asia. In 2010, Adm. Gary Roughead, the chief of naval operations and Gen. Norton Schwartz, the head of the air force, signed a classified memorandum directing their services to develop "AirSea Battle" — a new operational concept designed to overcome China's development of anti-access and area denial weapons. The idea was to find ways to preserve the U.S. military's access to the Western Pacific. “The Air Force and Navy arrived, almost simultaneously, at the same ‘aha’ moment,” defense intellectual and Navy expert Bryan McGrath told me in 2015. “They saw that there was a power rising that could challenge what each of them do best. For the Navy, that’s power projection — and for the Air Force, that’s air power. And for decades, neither of those battle spaces was in jeopardy. But suddenly, with what China was doing, that was no longer true. Suddenly, there was a power in the Pacific that was going to challenge the way they fight.” Retired U.S. Army Colonel Kevin Benson, one of his service's premier thinkers, puts it this way: "Close combat is a thing of the past," he says. "If the enemy knows where you are, he can kill you. We live in an era of hypersonic weapons and satellite-linked units. So you have to get under that umbrella, you have to look for a seam in his defenses, or you have to create one. You have to put more fire on the bad guy faster than he can respond. Berger's guidance is incomplete, but that's what he's trying to do."
Berger's thinking reflects this reality. "The rapid expansion of China’s area-denial capabilities, coupled with its pivot to the sea . . . have fundamentally transformed the environment in which the U.S. military will operate for the foreseeable future," Berger wrote in an article in War on the Rocks last December. "For the first time in a generation, sea control is no longer the unquestioned prerogative of the United States." To counter this, the Marines will deploy "low cost, lethal air and ground unmanned platforms, unmanned long range surface and subsurface vehicles, mobile, rapidly deployable rocket systems, long range precision fires, loitering munitions… mobile air defense and counter-precision guided munitions capabilities, signature management, electronic warfare and expeditionary airfields."
But while Berger's focus is on China, some Pentagon officials suspect that other realities are driving his thinking. Berger says as much one-third of the way through his guidance: "The principle challenge facing the Marine Corps today," he writes, "lies in continuing to fulfill its charter as the naval expeditionary force-in-readiness, while simultaneously modernizing the force… with potentially fewer Marines, and a possible reduction in total resources." Berger makes it clear that he's willing to "secure additional modernization dollars in exchange for force structure…" — another way of saying that the Marines are willing to live with fewer numbers so long as they get new weapons. In truth, the Marines may not have a choice: Pentagon officials concede that the services are entering an era of flatline or even plunging budget authorizations at the same time that they're having difficulty signing up and retaining new recruits. It's easy to say you're going to have fewer Marines when no one is showing up at your recruiting stations. Among Berger's critics are those who discuss his ideas while giving a wink-wink at this reality: the enemy the Marines are fighting isn't China, they say, it's the defense budget.
But suggesting that it's the budget, and not China, that is behind Berger's thinking brings often angry responses from those paid to think about naval strategy. "Usually when budgets flatline, services become conservative and double down on what they consider to be their 'core,'" the senior naval strategist to whom I spoke, says. "That's doesn't seem to be what the Marines are doing here . . . This is really just the Marines figuring out how to do their job."
Finally, the guidance's most outspoken critics, including one senior Marine who served in Afghanistan, point out that Berger plans to fight China with "units yet to be formed, transported on amphibious ships yet to be built, linked by networks yet to be developed and armed with anti-missile capabilities yet to be tested." The rejoinder from the Navy strategy expert with whom I spoke is pointed: "Does a lack of completed technology mean that you don't start pushing forward? The Marines worked on amphibious doctrine before the Higgins Boat was done [in World War Two] and worked on helicopter doctrine way before they had helos with the range and capacity to actually do it. Working on the technology hasn't stopped the Marines before."
Of course, there is also an unstated agenda here, as any number of Berger critics note. The new guidance positions the Marines as the lead service for the emergent and increasingly empowered China-is-the-enemy lobby. And while that view is far from an accepted fact, the guidance will help sell it. Or, to paraphrase one Asia expert: if you treat China like an enemy, and name them as an enemy, you're going to get what you ask for. It's a smart move for Berger and his service, but it's also transparent — and cynical: in an era of flatlining or eroding budget numbers, the Marines can not only claim to be "the first to fight," they can claim to be the first in line to get the anti-China defense dollars. Which, presumably, is exactly where Berger wants them to be.
If there is a bottom line here, it is that while Berger partisans argue that his guidance is "visionary, disruptive and transformational," his detractors use the same adjectives to highlight its weaknesses: it's too visionary, too disruptive and too transformational.
But it's also "subversive," as the Marine veteran of Afghanistan told me. "If Berger is right, if it's possible to do better with less, than why can't the Army, Navy and Air Force do the same?" he asks. "If Berger's planning guidance is the wave of the future, then why are the Army, Navy and Air Force stuck in the past?" Which suggests other, yet to be answered, questions: if aircraft carriers and other "expensive and exquisite capabilities" (as Berger describes them) are vulnerable, then why do we continue to build and deploy them? "The Navy, especially, needs to provide answers," this Marine says, "and the last time I checked, Berger's office was on the same corridor as the chief of naval operations. So if he really wants to know what the Navy thinks, all he has to do is walk down the hall and ask."
Mark Perry is a senior analyst at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and a widely published military and foreign affairs reporter. He is also an award-winning author of ten books, including The Pentagon’s Wars: The Military’s Undeclared War Against America’s Presidents (Basic Books, 2017); The Most Dangerous Man In America: The Making of Douglas MacArthur (Basic Books 2014); and Talking To Terrorists (Basic Books, 2010). The Boston Globe named his book on Gen. MacArthur the best non-fiction work of 2014. Previously, Perry served as a senior foreign policy analyst and political director for Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation, which founded the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, which won the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize. He is a graduate of Boston University.
U.S. Marines with Charlie Battery, Battalion Landing Team, 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines, 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit during a simulated embassy reinforcement at Kin, Okinawa, Japan, Sept. 12, 2020. (U.S. Marine Corps video by Lance Cpl. Colton K. Garrett)
Two years ago on Feb. 24, 2022, the world watched as Russian tanks rolled into the outskirts of Kyiv and missiles struck the capital city.
Contrary to initial predictions, Kyiv never fell, but the country today remains embroiled in conflict. The front line holds in the southeastern region of the country, with contested areas largely focused on the Russian-speaking Donbas and port cities around the Black Sea.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, having recognized the Russian-occupied territories of Donetsk and Luhansk as independent days before the invasion, has from the beginning declared the war a “special military operation” to “demilitarize and denazify” Ukraine. His goals have alternated, however, between existential — bringing all of Ukraine into the influence of Russia — and strategic — laying claim to only those Russian-speaking areas in the east and south of the country.
It is in the latter that Russia has been much more successful. Yet after two winters of brutal fighting and hundreds of thousands of casualties on both sides, as of the end of 2023 Russia only laid claim to 18% of Ukraine’s territory, as compared to 7% on the eve of the war and 27% in the weeks after the invasion.
Meanwhile, the West’s coffers have been opened — and, as some say, drained — to help Ukraine’s government, led by President Volodymyr Zelensky, defend itself against Moscow.
Regardless, Ukraine’s military forces have been wholly depleted as they compete with a much more resourced and populous Russia. While Ukraine’s military campaign was able to take advantage of Russian tactical mistakes in the first year, its much-heralded counteroffensive in 2023 failed to provide the boost needed not only to rid the country of the Russian occupation, but also to put Kyiv in the best position to call for terms.
If anything, as Quincy Institute experts Anatol Lieven and George Beebe point out in their new brief, “there is now little realistic prospect of further Ukrainian territorial gains on the battlefield, and there is a significant risk that Ukraine might exhaust its manpower and munitions and lay itself open to a devastating Russian counterattack.”
The only and best solution, they say, is to drive all sides to the negotiating table before Ukraine is destroyed.
The narrative of the war — how it began, where it is today — is well documented. On the second anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion, RS thought it might be instructive to look at the numbers — weapons, aid, polling, population, and more — that illustrate the cost and the contours of the conflict over 24 months, and counting.
The U.S. Congress has allocated a total of $113 billion in funding related to the war. The vast majority of this money went directly to defending Ukraine ($45.2 billion in military aid) and keeping its government and society functioning ($46 billion in economic and humanitarian aid). Other funds went to rearming allies ($4.7 billion) and expanding U.S. military operations in Europe ($15.2 billion).
After two years of war, that funding has dried up. The Biden administration, which once shipped two or three new weapons packages each month, has not sent Ukraine a major arms shipment since Dec. 27, 2023. As Congress struggles to pass an additional $60 billion in Ukraine-related funding, observers increasingly believe that aid package may have been the last.
The Pentagon has sent at least 3,097,000 rounds of artillery to Ukraine since Russia’s invasion. Most of those (2,000,000) have been 155 mm shells, the standard size used by the U.S. and its NATO allies. For perspective, that’s about 95,000 tons of 155 mm ammunition alone.
Despite ramping up military manufacturing, the U.S. still only produces about 340,000 155 mm shells per year, meaning that Ukraine has been firing rounds at three times the rate of American production.
Washington has also given Kyiv 76 tanks, including 31 Abrams tanks and 45 Soviet-era T-72Bs. Ukraine has received 3,631 American armored vehicles of various types, from infantry fighting vehicles to personnel carriers and medical trucks.
Meanwhile, Ukraine has made use of 39 American-made HIMARS, a mobile rocket launcher that has become famous for its utility in the war. As for smaller arms, the U.S. has sent at least 400,000,000 grenades and bullets in the past 24 months.
The war has killed at least 10,378 civilians and injured an additional 19,632, according to the UN. More than three in four non-combatant casualties occurred in areas held by the Ukrainian government, indicating that Moscow is responsible for the lion’s share of civilian harm.
When it comes to military casualties, good data still remains hard to come by and estimates are sometimes wildly different. Neither Russia nor Ukraine have offered detailed, public indications of the war’s impact on their soldiers.
The U.S. estimated in August that 70,000 Ukrainian soldiers had died and an additional 100,000 to 120,000 had been injured, putting the number of total casualties at over 170,000. Russia, for its part, claimed in November that 383,000 Ukrainian soldiers had been killed or wounded.
On the other side, the United Kingdom estimates that Russia has suffered at least 320,000 casualties, with 50,000 deaths among Russian soldiers and 20,000 deaths among Wagner Group mercenaries. Washington said in December that Moscow had suffered 315,000 casualties, though American officials did not provide a breakdown of deaths and injuries.
The United Nations estimates that the Ukrainian population (the entire country within internationally recognized borders), which totaled 43.5 million people in 2021, dropped to 39.7 million in 2022 as war swept through the country’s east. This trend continued into 2023, as the population dropped to 36.7 million — the lowest level since Ukraine became independent in 1990.
As of January, 6.3 million Ukrainians have become refugees abroad, with another 3.7 million displaced internally. As the frontlines have settled, Ukraine’s population has slowly started to grow again, reaching 37.9 million in early 2024. Meanwhile, demographer Elena Libanova estimates that only 28 million of those people live within areas currently under Ukrainian government control (outside of Crimea and the Donbas).
Two new polls that came out within the last week illustrate the complexities of Americans’ feelings toward the war in Ukraine and the U.S. role in it.
First, a Pew poll published February 16 found that a large majority of Americans (74%) see the war between Russia and Ukraine as somewhat (30%) or very important (43%) to U.S. interests. And another survey, from the Harris Poll and the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft, found that Americans broadly support a U.S.-led negotiated end to the conflict.
But the past few months in Washington have been largely focused on U.S. aid to Ukraine, specifically whether Congress will pass President Biden’s request for roughly $60 billion for Kyiv’s fight against Russia.
According to Pew, in March 2022, 74% of Americans said U.S. aid to Ukraine was “just right” or “not enough.” In December 2023, that same survey found that just 47% said the same. The biggest change came from Republicans: 49% said in March, 2022 that U.S. aid was “not enough,” while just 13% said the same in December.
Meanwhile, Gallup found in August 2022 that 74% of Americans said U.S. aid to Ukraine was “about right” (36%) or “not enough” (38%). Those numbers came down slightly in Gallup’s latest track on this question in October, 2023, with 58% saying U.S. aid was about right (33%) or not enough (25%).
There have been several attempts to bring nations together to outline talks to end the war. Russia and Ukraine engaged in five rounds of talks in Belarus and Turkey shortly after the invasion, but the talks collapsed amid allegations of Russian war crimes and Western pressure on Kyiv to keep fighting.
Since then, the belligerents have spoken directly about secondary issues, like Black Sea shipping and prisoner swaps. Ukraine, meanwhile, laid out a “10-point peace plan” that has formed the basis for five international summits, none of which included Russia. These took place in Copenhagen, Denmark, in June 2023; in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in August 2023; in Malta in October, 2023; in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in December 2023; and Davos, Switzerland, in January of this year.
Since the start of the war, Congress has passed four aid packages for Ukraine, totaling $113 billion. While none of the four packages were identical and aid for Ukraine was sometimes bundled with other spending, the trends for support for Kyiv in Congress are similar to those we see in polling, particularly among congressional Republicans.
The 2022 supplemental, which became law in May 2022 and provided Ukraine with $39.34 billion in aid passed the House 368-57 and the Senate by a vote of 86-11. By September 2023, when the House voted on the Ukraine Security Assistance and Oversight Supplemental Appropriations Act, which provided Kyiv with $300 million in security assistance, it passed by a vote of 311-117, with a majority of Republican members opposing the legislation.
On February 12 of this year, the Senate voted 70-29 to pass a national security supplemental, which would provide approximately $60 billion in aid for Kyiv alongside money for Israel and partners in the Indo-Pacific. The bill has not yet been voted on in the House.
Ben Armbruster, Blaise Malley, Connor Echols and Kelley Vlahos contributed reporting. Graphics by Khody Akhavi.
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A woman lays flowers at the monument to the victims of political repressions following the death of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, in Moscow, Russia February 16, 2024. REUTERS/Stringer
President Biden was entirely correct in the first part of his judgment on the death of Alexei Navalny: “Putin is responsible, whether he ordered it, or he is responsible for the circumstances he put that man in.” Even if Navalny eventually died of “natural causes,” his previous poisoning, and the circumstances of his imprisonment, must obviously be considered as critical factors in his death.
For his tremendous courage in returning to Russia after his medical treatment in the West — knowing well the dangers that he faced — the memory of Navalny should be held in great honor. He joins the immense list of Russians who have died for their beliefs at the hands of the state. Public expressions of anger and disgust at the manner of his death are justified and correct.
The problem comes with the other part of Biden’s statement, that “[Navalny’s death] is a reflection of who [Putin] is. And it just cannot be tolerated.” If he had said “approved,” “justified,” or “defended,” that would have been absolutely right. But “tolerated”? What can Biden do in response, that he has not done already?
The U.S. president has promised major new sanctions intended to “cut Russia off from the world economy” — but that requires Washington to control the world economy. Economic sanctions against Russia in response to the invasion of Ukraine have failed, and even strengthened the Russian economy and the state’s grip on it. They cannot be significantly extended, because this would damage and infuriate countries that are dependent on Russian energy exports, including India, a key U.S. partner. As to sanctions against Russian individuals part of or linked to the Russian regime, there are already thousands of them, and they have had no effect whatsoever.
Statements like Biden’s are both pointless and dangerous. For the spoken or unspoken implication is that it is impossible to deal with Putin. But like it or not, Putin is the president of Russia. To all appearances, he will remain so for a considerable time to come, and will hand over to a successor of his own choosing. The Biden administration has said that it wants Ukrainian victory (whatever that now means), but it has also said that it believes that the war will end in negotiations, and following the failure of last year’s Ukrainian offensive, is now reported to be moving in this direction.
Who does Biden think that he will negotiate with, if not Putin? Seeking talks on an end to the Ukraine war does not imply approval of Putin’s crimes or his invasion of Ukraine, any more than the Eisenhower administration’s negotiation of an end to the Korean War implied approval of the North Korean regime and its invasion of South Korea.
By its own account, the Biden administration has supposedly made the promotion of democracy around the world a central part of its diplomacy, with the clear implication that only democratic governments that respect human rights are truly legitimate. Actual U.S. diplomacy does not work like this and never has; not because of American imperialist or capitalist wickedness, but because the world does not work like this.
Nobody should be required to like or admire the governments of Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, Mohammed Bin Salman or Narendra Modi (though we might well wish that U.S. officials had been less effusive in their praise of them). Like Putin, they are however the heads of their countries’ governments, and likely to remain so. You deal with Saudi Arabia and India — and you have to deal with Saudi Arabia and India — you deal with MBS and Modi.
The other thing to be wary of in the outpouring of outrage at the death of Navalny, is that this is already being used to build a strategy of greatly increased Western official support for the Russian opposition. Many (not all) people and groups in the Russian liberal opposition are personally and politically admirable. Some, like Navalny, have shown tremendous courage. To say this is quite different from believing that they are ever likely to form the government of Russia, and that the U.S. should base its policy towards Russia on the hope that this will be so.
The sad truth is that the Ukraine war has placed the Russian liberal opposition in a politically impossible position. Having been largely chased into exile by Putin, they are dependent on Western support. This means however that their principled opposition to the Russian invasion can be portrayed by the Russian government — and is seen by many ordinary Russians — as treason in time of war. As with the Iranian, Chinese, and other oppositions, official support from Washington only allows the ruling regimes to paint the name “traitor” in brighter colors.
A combination (differing from individual to individual) of idealism, dependence on the West and hatred of Putin means that instead of advocating a compromise peace in Ukraine, many Russian oppositionists have — willingly or unwillingly — identified themselves with Ukrainian and Western positions that explicitly demand complete Russian defeat.
And while not many Russians wanted the war, not many Russians want to see Russia defeated. As I have remarked before, even many Americans who strongly opposed the war in Vietnam were outraged when Jane Fonda went to Hanoi. If she stood a chance of being elected to any office in the U.S. before that trip, she certainly didn’t afterwards.
Any hope of rebuilding liberalism in Russia (and indeed Ukraine, albeit to a much lesser extent) therefore requires an end to the war. For some degree of authoritarianism is a natural accompaniment to every war, and regimes all over the world have exploited this to increase their own power. Equally importantly, mass support for Putin is critically dependent on the general belief that the West intends not just to defeat Russia but to cripple it as a state, and that to prevent this it is essential to support the government.
For the moment at least, this has eclipsed previously widespread resentments —which Navalny channeled — at regime corruption. No amount of Western or Russian opposition propaganda can change this Russian picture. Peace might, if it is given a chance.
For the third year in a row, globally, the number of investors in nuclear weapons producers has fallen but the overall amount invested in these companies has increased, largely thanks to some of the biggest investment banks and funds in the U.S.
“As for the U.S., while there is, like past years, indeed a dominance, and total financing from U.S.-based institutions has increased, the total number of U.S. investors has dropped for the third year in a row (similar to our global findings), and we hope to see this number will continue to fall in the coming years,” Alejandar Munoz, the report’s primary author, told Responsible Statecraft.
In 2023, the top 10 share and bondholders of nuclear weapons producing companies are all American firms. The firms — Vanguard, Capital Group, State Street, BlackRock, Wellington Management, Fidelity Investments, Newport Group, Geode Capital Holdings, Bank of America and Morgan Stanley — held $327 billion in investments in nuclear weapons producing companies in 2023, an $18 billion increase from 2022.
These companies are also profiting from the enormous government contracts they receive for developing and modernizing nuclear weapons.
“All nuclear-armed states are currently modernizing their nuclear weapon systems,” says the annual “Don’t Bank on the Bomb” report from PAX and ICAN. “In 2022, the nine nuclear-armed states together spent $82.9 billion on their nuclear weapons arsenals, an increase of $2.5 billion compared to the previous year, and with the United States spending more than all other nuclear powers combined.”
American weapons companies are some of the biggest recipients of contracts for nuclear weapons. Northrop Grumman and General Dynamics are “the biggest nuclear weapons profiteers,” according to the report. Combined, the two American weapons manufacturers have outstanding nuclear weapons related contracts with a combined potential value of at least $44.9 billion.
Those enormous government contracts for nuclear weapons, alongside contracts for conventional weapons, have helped make nuclear weapons producers an attractive investment for American investment banks and funds.
“Altogether, 287 financial institutions were identified for having substantial financing or investment relations with 24 companies involved in nuclear weapon production,” says the report. “$477 billion was held in bonds and shares, and $343 billion was provided in loans and underwriting.”
The report notes that while the total amount invested in nuclear weapons has increased, the number of investors has fallen and trends toward firms in countries with nuclear weapons.
ICAN and PAX suggest that concentration may be a result of prohibitions on nuclear weapons development for signatories to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), a 93 signatory treaty committing to the ultimate goal of the total elimination of nuclear weapons. The report says:
The TPNW comprehensively prohibits the development, manufacturing, testing, possession, use and threat of use of nuclear weapons, as well as assistance with those acts. For companies that build the key components needed to maintain and expand countries’ nuclear arsenals, access to private funding is crucial. As such, the banks, pension funds, asset managers and other financiers that continue to invest in or grant credit to these companies allow for the production of inhumane and indiscriminate weapons to proceed. By divesting from their business relationships with these companies, financial institutions can reduce available capital for nuclear weapon related activities and thereby be instrumental in supporting the fulfilment of the TPNW’s objectives.
Susi Snyder, managing director of the Don’t Bank on the Bomb Project, told Responsible Statecraft that even U.S. banks, like Pittsburgh based PNC Bank, are facing shareholder pressure to divest from nuclear weapons and that the tide may be shifting as shareholders in U.S. companies grow increasingly sensitive to investments in nuclear weapons.
“For three years shareholder resolutions have been put forward at PNC bank raising concerns that their investments in nuclear weapon producers are a violation of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), and that they are not in line with the bank's overall human rights policy guidelines,” she said.