There’s a myth in Washington that America’s nuclear posture is developed though sober consideration of complex strategic imperatives. There are risks, we are told, but we need thousands of nuclear weapons to keep America safe. They are our ultimate security. Wise men (it is almost always men) have objectively arrived at the minimum necessary deterrent based on decades of tested theory and practice.
Strategy was never the sole determinant of America’s nuclear arsenal, but in the early decades of the Cold War, however flawed, it was arguably the major driver. No longer. It is now a thin veneer of justification for a collection of legacy systems and new programs promoted for financial and political profit. The entire process is guided by an army of lobbyists. “The defense sector employed 775 lobbyists and shelled out more than $126 million to influence Congress in 2018,” reports John Carl Baker from the Ploughshares Fund,
The path to a saner nuclear strategy, therefore, goes through the budget, not the other way around. Time spent debating alternative postures will be wasted if not joined by equal or greater efforts to shrink the budgets that fuel current and future weapons plans.
The evidence is everywhere. In the midst of a raging pandemic and economic collapse, Congress last month passed a $740.5 billion Pentagon budget that lavishes almost $70 billion on nuclear weapons and related programs, with little debate and few changes to Donald Trump’s request.
The Strategic Forces Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee, for example, held just three hearings last year and only called government witnesses. It then approved Trump’s budget in full. Major challenges to Trump’s policies and budgets were like pebbles thrown at a closed window: noticed but ignored.
It was similar in the Senate. The testimony of the head of the Strategic Command before the Senate Armed Services Committee provides an example of the vapid justification offered for the dozens of different weapon types and scores of options for thermonuclear war that Congress approved.
“Our deterrent underwrites every U.S. military operation around the world and is the foundation and backstop of our national defense,” Gen. Charles Richmond said, arguing that the United States needs to maintain “a credible [nuclear] deterrent” that “requires us to modernize and recapitalize our strategic forces to ensure our Nation has the capability to deter any actor, at any level.”
That was pretty much it for strategy. Thin gruel, but enough to get his budget approved — and keep a river of money flowing through Washington. The modest $88 billion “modernization” program that President Barack Obama authorized in 2010, as a bridge to the major nuclear reductions he wanted, has metastasized into a $2 trillion plan to replace every Cold War submarine, bomber, missile, and warhead with an entirely new generation of the deadliest weapons ever invented. Obama’s cuts died, but the contracts continued.
This plan will keep thousands of weapons deployed until near the end of this century — and, thus, lucrative deals for Lockheed Martin, Raytheon Technologies, Northrop Grumman, Boeing, and General Dynamics, the big five contractors that dominate military and nuclear policy.
They sell nuclear weapons like Kellogg’s sells cereal. It’s not a question of whether we need the product; they just need to convince us to buy it.
They do this in three ways. The first is a pitch that relies on product differentiation, a way to sell essentially the same goods in a variety of shapes, sizes, and packaging. You like shredded wheat? Then maybe you’d like it frosted, or bite-sized, or both. Thus, the familiar triad of bombers, land-based missiles, and submarines is now supplemented by cruise missiles launched from air and sea, a growing variety of ranges and yields, and a new campaign for nuclear hypersonic missiles and weapons in space.
The second is control of the market. These firms dominate in ways that Kellogg’s could only dream of doing. Corporations have thoroughly penetrated the military services generating the weapons requirements through decades of revolving doors and increasing dependence on contractors for core analysis, communication, and even administrative functions. The same is true of the civilian departments that purchase and oversee the weapons development and productions programs.
The Project On Government Oversight, for example, documented at least 380 high-ranking Department of Defense officials and military officers who went to work for weapons contractors. “The truth is,” says Senator Elizabeth Warren, “our existing laws are far too weak to effectively limit the undue influence of giant military contractors at the Department of Defense.”
The third is to do what Facebook and Amazon do so well: eliminate the competition. Contractors have basically absorbed or bought off institutional threats to their programs. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, when the American public and politicians engaged more fully in nuclear strategy, the contractors learned how to game the system. They backed groups and politicians who promoted bogus threats, like a “window of vulnerability” that would allow the Soviet Union to win a nuclear war with a devastating first strike. But the real genius was to place sub-contracts for their biggest, most controversial systems like the MX missile or the B-1 bomber in most or even all of the 435 congressional districts.
The jobs and revenues of these contracts and bases quickly dominated the decision-making processes in these states, They were supplemented by generous campaign contributions that — were they given to a judge and not a congressperson — would be grounds for recusal. Coupled with the fear establishment Democrats have for appearing “weak” on national security, this system of contracts, contributions, and campaigns has effectively gutted meaningful congressional oversight.
Contractors over the past few decades have also constrained the formerly independent analytical establishment. Just as the fossil fuel industry muted criticism of climate change and established alternative experts, when the Cold War ended and bipartisan movements to eliminate nuclear weapons arose, weapons firms flooded think tanks and universities with grants, compromising their independence.
Over just the past five years, at least $1 billion in U.S. government and defense contractor funding went to the top fifty think tanks in America. The key funders from the government, according to a report from the Center for International Policy, “were the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Air Force, the Army, the Department of Homeland Security, and the State Department.” The defense contractors contributing the most were Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Airbus.
It worked. Once sources for alternative military budgets and exposés, it is rare to find a major think tank report today that is critical of military spending or, even more rare, a specific weapons program. Institutes that benefit from this largess now churn out reports and events favorable to increased military budgets and “great power competition.” This last argument works perfectly for most centrist politicians and analysts. It has just the right amount of fear and nationalism to provide sound bites on television or the campaign trail.
This lavish funding has created a new generation of advocates for super-sizing the arsenal. While there are some brilliant analysts at the large institutes who are truly independent and do not take contractor funding, it is hard to name a significant nuclear weapons proponent who has not benefited directly or indirectly from corporate or government funding. Experts are not asked to disclose these personal or institutional conflicts of interest in their articles or quotes.
This should not be a cause for despair, but for recalibration.
It could start with a simple step every journalist could take: Disclose conflicts of interest in your sources. If an expert won’t disclose their funding, don’t quote them. In Washington, this is practically a death sentence.
It could come from the research institutes themselves: Reaffirm your independence. Decline donations from weapons firms and military departments. If that is too hard, disclose all such grants up front in your reports. We need the intellectual rigor of alternative analysis, but it must be truly independent — and complete the analysis by including the material factors shaping the current posture, not just the stated strategic justifications.
President Joe Biden could assert his power by cutting the nuclear budget and not rubber-stamping Trump’s weapons. “By acting swiftly to cancel or suspend these programs, and to cut the overall Pentagon budget accordingly, Biden will create considerable leverage for negotiations with Congress,” I wrote recently for The American Prospect. “He will arrive at a much better deal by starting at zero and negotiating up rather than by trimming the programs and negotiating down.”
Finally, the independent non-government groups that represent the last, truly independent organizations promoting a saner nuclear policy must recognize a simple fact of life: No alternative nuclear posture or clever op-ed will impact policy, no matter how brilliant. The only strategy that can succeed is to focus on the money. That means teaming up with those fighting to redefine what makes and keeps us safe, who advocate for increased funding to combat climate change, to battle the pandemic, to improve health care, and to address social inequities. They need the funds that are currently locked up in obsolete and dangerous weapons programs.
By linking up, by making cuts to the Pentagon budget part of the strategy of these groups (and by reimaging national security to include these issues), it may be possible to forge a broad united front that is more powerful than the contractors. It can identify alternative revenue streams for states and districts, shame Congress into restoring investigations and oversight, press journalists to disclose conflicts of interest of the experts they quote, convince experts that their work is not complete if it does not factor money into their analysis, and pressure the government to spend taxpayer money on programs that improve our lives, not threaten them.
And if this is too long a list to remember, just hum a little Randy Newman.
Joseph Cirincione is a national security analyst and author with over 35 years of experience working these issues in Washington, D.C. He is the author or editor of seven books, including Nuclear Nightmares: Securing the World before It Is Too Late and Bomb Scare: The History and Future of Nuclear Weapons. He served previously as president of Ploughshares Fund, a global security foundation, vice president for national security at the Center for American Progress and director for nonproliferation at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, among other positions. He worked for over nine years on the professional staff of the Armed Services Committee and the Government Operations Committee in the U.S. House of Representatives. He is adjunct faculty at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. He appears frequently on television, radio and in the media and is the author of over eight hundred articles and reports on defense and national security. He tweets @Cirincione.
Somali National Army soldiers march during the 57th Anniversary of the Somali National Army held at the Ministry of defence in Mogadishu on April 12, 2017. AMISOM Photo / Ilyas Ahmed. Original public domain image from Flickr
On February 15, the U.S. government signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the government of Somalia to construct up to five military bases for the Somali National Army in the name of bolstering the army’s capabilities in the ongoing fight against the militant group al-Shabaab.
This is a troubling development that not only risks further militarizing Somalia and perpetuating endless war, but comes with the potential of exacerbating geopolitical rivalries at the expense of the needs and interests of ordinary Somalis.
According to statements by U.S. officials, the bases are intended for the Danab (“Lightning”) Brigade, a U.S.-sponsored Special Ops Force that was established in 2014. Funding for Danab initially came from the U.S. State Department, which contracted the private security firm Bancroft Global to train and advise the unit. More recently, Danab has received funding, equipment, and training from the Department of Defense.
U.S. support is made possible by the 127e program, a U.S. budgetary authority that allows the Pentagon to bypass congressional oversight by allowing U.S. special operations forces to use foreign military units as surrogates in counterterrorism missions. The Intercept has documented similar 127e operations in multiple African countries, primarily in locations that the U.S. government does not recognize as combat zones, but in which AFRICOM troops are present on the ground.
But this MoU is about much more than the U.S. government’s proclaimed commitment to help Somalia defeat al-Shabaab. It is a clear indication of the growing geopolitical significance of the Horn of Africa, and comes at a time of mounting concerns (mostly attempts by Yemen’s Houthis to disrupt global shipping in solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza) about securing the flow of international commerce via the Red Sea. It also coincides with a growing awareness that rising tensions in the Middle East could force the U.S. out of Iraq.
The U.S. government’s plan to train Somali security forces at newly-established military bases in five different parts of the country (Baidoa, Dhusamareb, Jowhar, Kismayo, and Mogadishu) is a back-door strategy not only to expand the U.S. military’s presence in Somalia, but to position itself more assertively vis-à-vis other powers in the region. Indeed, the 127e program is not the only policy that allows for the training and equipping of foreign forces as proxies: section 1202 of the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act further expands the ability of the U.S. to wage war via surrogate forces in places where it has not formally declared war, with the broader objective of countering the influence of adversaries like China and Russia.
While much ink has been spilled attempting to analyze great power competition on the continent, we have yet to adequately scrutinize the growing influence of middle powers like Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar who are each attempting to negotiate their own sphere of influence, and whose involvement in the Horn points to uncertain, if not waning, U.S. power.
Turkey maintains its largest foreign military presence in Mogadishu, has trained Somali security forces, and more recently has worked closely with the Somali government in conducting drone strikes against Al-Shabaab. Further underlining deepening Turkish engagement in the country, Somalia and Turkey signed defense and economic agreements earlier this month. Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have trained, and continue to train, local security forces as part of a broader strategy to secure access to regional markets and to assert their control over vital shipping lanes in the Red Sea.
With the drawdown of the African Union sponsored “peacekeeping” mission — previously known as AMISOM but renamed ATMIS in 2022 — analysts have expressed apprehension about the expansive nature of foreign actor involvement in Somalia and the risk of Cold War-style competition fueling instability. Indeed, the foreign-sponsored training of multiple “elite” contingents of the Somali National Army (Danab, Waran, Gashaan) has prompted internal divisions within the security establishment in Somalia as it raises chain of command issues and questions about the loyalty of these units.
As Colin D. Robinson and Jahara Matisek, both regional and military experts, have said, “The only thing worse is that various Somali units become more loyal and dependent on their foreign patron, short-circuiting the political logic of having security forces that look more like hired proxies than locally organized for self-defense. This may contribute to the growing perception of Somalia becoming a hyper-competitive arena; a republic of militias if you will.”
Equally significant is the recently announced Memorandum of Understanding between Ethiopia and Somaliland, a separatist region in northwestern Somalia. According to the terms of this yet-to-be signed agreement, in exchange for Somaliland granting 20km of much coveted sea access for the Ethiopian Navy for a period of 50 years, Ethiopia would formally recognize the Republic of Somaliland as an independent nation. The MoU has elicited a wave of anger among Somalis who view Ethiopia as meddling in their internal affairs — and it is precisely this history of meddling that has in the past contributed to al-Shabaab’s support base as it positions itself as the defender of Somali nationalism and autonomy.
While the U.S. State Department called for respect for Somalia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and urged dialogue in response to the Ethiopia-Somaliland MoU in the name of de-escalating tensions in the region, the February 15 announcement that the U.S. intends to ramp up its involvement in Somalia is hardly an indication of a neutral stance. Rather, it is an indication of U.S. positioning in an increasingly militarized jockeying by foreign powers in this strategic but troubled country and region.
In Mogadishu, many Somalis are welcoming the U.S. announcement, perhaps in some cases hoping for job opportunities, and in others viewing the U.S. military support and presence as a potential buffer against Ethiopia. But if the past several decades of U.S. mis-adventures in Somalia are any indication, expanding U.S. involvement risks perpetuating rather than minimizing further conflict.
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SOUTH CHINA SEA (Feb. 9, 2021) The Theodore Roosevelt and Nimitz Carrier Strike Groups steam in formation on scheduled deployments to the 7th Fleet area of operations. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Elliot Schaudt/Released)
The U.S. will have almost half of its aircraft carriers deployed in the Pacific in the coming weeks.
The South China Morning Post reported on February 14 that five of America’s 11 aircraft carriers would all likely soon be deployed there at the same time. Two of the carriers, the USS Carl Vinson and USS Theodore Roosevelt have been participating in a military exercise with Japan in the Philippine Sea, the USS Ronald Reagan is in port at Yokosuka, the USS Abraham Lincoln departed San Diego earlier this month, and the USS George Washington is expected to relieve the Reagan in a few weeks.
This is an unusual concentration of America’s naval power in one region at once, and it is being widely interpreted as a show of force meant for China and North Korea.
The Biden administration has made a point of making more shows of force in East Asia over the last year to reassure Asian allies that the U.S. has not forgotten about them. That isn’t surprising given the importance that the administration attaches to the “Indo-Pacific” and an active U.S. role in it, but in doing this it may also be contributing to increasing tensions with both Beijing and Pyongyang. We have already seen some of this in the back-and-forth between the U.S. and North Korea since last summer as North Korea has answered U.S. naval deployments to South Korea with additional missile tests and more bellicose rhetoric.
While these carrier deployments are presumably intended to signal American resolve and commitment to its regional allies, they could easily encourage China and North Korea to engage in their own reciprocal demonstrations of strength. They are also a reminder that the U.S. approach to East Asia is still very much a “military-first” approach that gives short shrift and devotes relatively few resources to economic statecraft and diplomacy. International relations scholar Van Jackson warned about the dangers of this approach more than two years ago, and since then the U.S. has only ramped up its military spending and deployments.
Because Washington’s attention has been focused so intently for the last four months on the war in Gaza and the other conflicts in the Middle East connected to it, it seems that the administration wants to show that it isn’t neglecting East Asia. The carrier deployments in the Pacific appear to be an attempt to “make up” for the continued massive over-investment of energy and resources in the Middle East.
The show of force may satisfy some allied governments, but it could also confirm the impression in both friendly and hostile capitals that the U.S. is overstretched and trying to take on too many tasks at the same time. The habit of reassuring allies so frequently has its own costs, including encouraging greater allied dependence, and when it is done too often it can have destabilizing effects on the wider region.
One of the principle weaknesses of U.S. foreign policy in East Asia is an overreliance on military deterrence. This tends to ratchet up tensions more than necessary and undermines credible assurances to adversaries. The U.S. excels at reassuring allies with its displays of military power, but because it often fails to strike a balance by giving adversaries assurances about its intentions, our government can feed the fears of Chinese and North Korean leaders and encourage them to assume the worst about what the U.S. is doing.
The carrier deployments suggest that the administration doesn’t understand the need for balancing deterrence and assurance. Failing to balance the two risks making conflict based on a miscalculation more likely. As the Quincy Institute’s Michael Swaine recently wrote about U.S. deterrence and Taiwan, “This balance is essential because, if the level of punishment or denial capability acquired is in fact seen as threatening the adversary’s most vital interests, the adversary, rather than being deterred from taking aggressive action, will become more inclined to undertake or threaten preemptive or punishing moves of its own in order to protect those interests, thus increasing, rather than decreasing, the chance of conflict.”
By relying so much on shows of force designed to intimidate China, the Biden administration increases the risk of a crisis.
The potential danger with North Korea is arguably even greater, since the North Korean government has a long history of responding to U.S. and allied pressure with its own provocations and threats. To the extent that Pyongyang perceives the deployment of so many carriers to the Pacific as directed even partly at North Korea, Kim Jong-un may conclude that he needs to show off his country’s own capabilities with additional missile tests and possibly even a new nuclear test.
Last year, North Korea reacted very angrily to the arrival of the USS Ronald Reagan in Busan, so it seems reasonable to expect an even harsher response if there are multiple carriers in the vicinity. Given the increasingly hostile rhetoric already coming from Pyongyang in the last few months, it would not take much for a new standoff between the U.S. and North Korea to begin.
The U.S. can ill afford a new crisis in East Asia on top of the other conflicts that it is involved in, but its overly militarized approach to the region is not the way to avoid it. If Washington wants to make conflicts in East Asia less likely, it will need to do a much better job of understanding its adversaries’ thinking and of offering them assurances that they can believe. Right now, the U.S. is doing far too little of both, and that is making the U.S. and its allies less secure than they could be.
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Left-to-right: Senator-elect Ted Budd (R-N.C.); Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY), the Senate Minority Leader; Senator-elect Katie Britt (R-AL); and Senator-elect J.D. Vance (R-OH) pose for a photo before meeting in Leader McConnell’s office, at the U.S. Capitol, in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, November 15, 2022. (Graeme Sloan/Sipa USA)
The so-called GOP “civil war” over the role the United States should play in the world made headlines earlier this week when the Senate finally passed a national security supplemental that provides $60 billion in aid for Ukraine and $14 billion for Israel.
The legislation, which was supported by President Joe Biden and the overwhelming majority of the Senate’s Democratic caucus, proved more controversial among Republicans. Twenty-two GOP Senators voted in favor of the legislation, while 27 opposed it.
An analysis of the votes shows an interesting generational divide within the Republican caucus.
Each of the five oldest Republicans in the Senate — and nine of the ten oldest — voted in favor of the supplemental spending package. Conversely, the six youngest senators, and 12 of the 14 youngest, opposed it.
Equally striking was the breakdown of votes among Republicans based on when they assumed their current office. Of the 49 sitting GOP Senators, 30 were elected before Donald Trump first became the party’s presidential candidate in 2016. Eighteen of those 30 supported the aid legislation. Of the members who came to office in 2017 or later, only four voted to advance the bill, while 15 voted against.
The difference in votes among those elected since 2016 is likely partly attributable to Trump’s unconventional approach to foreign policy. The Republican party establishment during the Cold War and Global War on Terror is often associated with hawkishness, including towards Russia. While the party has always carried some skepticism toward foreign aid, some of the most significant spending increases have taken place during the presidencies of Republicans Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.
Trump, however, won in 2016 in part for his open disdain for mission creep after the GWOT, what he called the failed war in Iraq, and foreign aid he believed made countries dependents rather than reciprocal partners and allies.
“[Trump] certainly created the cognitive space,” Brandan Buck, a U.S. Army veteran and historian of GOP foreign policy, tells RS. “He's more of an intuitive thinker than a person of principle, but I think him being on the scene, prying open the Overton window has allowed for a greater array of dissenting voices.”
Others have argued that the trends are perhaps also indicative of the loyalty that Republicans who assumed their offices during the Trump presidency feel toward him. Trump spoke out forcefully against the legislation in advance of the vote.
“WE SHOULD NEVER GIVE MONEY ANYMORE WITHOUT THE HOPE OF A PAYBACK, OR WITHOUT “STRINGS” ATTACHED. THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA SHOULD BE “STUPID” NO LONGER!,” the former president wrote on the social media platform Truth Social the weekend before the vote.
The vote cannot only be explained by ideology, as some typically hawkish allies of Trump, like Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) ultimately voted against the package. Graham is a staunch supporter of Israel, has voted for previous Ukraine aid packages, and in the past called aid for Ukraine “a good investment” and “the best money we’ve ever spent.” By the time the vote on the most recent spending package came around, Graham was lamenting the lack of border security provisions and echoing Trump’s argument that aid to Ukraine should be a “loan.”
Meanwhile, Senators took note of the generational gap, and the debate spilled over into the public. .
“Nearly every Republican Senator under the age of 55 voted NO on this America Last bill,” wrote Sen. Eric Schmitt (R-Mo.), 48, on the social media platform X. “Things are changing just not fast enough.” Schmitt was elected in 2022.
“Youthful naivety is bliss, the wisdom of age may save the west,” retorted Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) “Reagan may be dead, but his doctrine saved the world during less dangerous times than these. If the modern Marx (Putin for the youngsters) restores the USSR while we pretend it’s not our problem, God help us.” Cramer, 63, was sworn in in 2019, making him one of the handful of recently elected senators to support the aid legislation.
“I like Kevin, but come on, man, have some self-awareness,” Sen. J.D. Vance fired back. “This moment calls out for many things, but boomer neoconservatism is not among them.”
Vance, who at 39 is the youngest Republican member of the Senate, noted in his post that “the fruits of this generation in American leadership is: quagmire in Afghanistan, war in Iraq under false pretenses.” He said younger Americans were disillusioned with that track record.
Buck, who served several tours in the Afghanistan war, and whose research includes generational trends in U.S. foreign policy thinking, pointed out that there is strong historical precedent for believing that age and generation affect how members of Congress view America’s role in the world.
“It's certainly not unusual for there to be generational trends in foreign policy thinking, especially within the Republican Party,” Buck told RS. Following the end of World War II, he said, it took “a full churning” of the conservative movement to replace old-school non-interventionist Republicans and to get the party in line with the Cold War consensus. “I think what we're seeing now is something similar but in reverse with a generation of conservatives.”
He added that the failures of the War on Terror resulted in a deep skepticism of the national security state and the Republican party establishment. Opinion polling and trends show that the American public that grew up either during or in the shadow of the disastrous military campaigns in the Greater Middle East is generally opposed to military intervention and more questioning of American institutions.
“All the energy on FP [foreign policy] in the GOP right now is with the younger generation that wants fundamental transformation of USFP [U.S. foreign policy],” noted Justin Logan, director of defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, on X. “The self-satisfied, insular neocons who loathe their voters’ FP views are a dying breed.”