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You choose: $105 billion a year for health care or nuclear weapons?

November 28, 2011

In 2011 the nine nuclear-armed nations will spend an estimated US$105 billion maintaining and modernizing their nuclear weapons, despite the International Court of Justice having declared it illegal to use and threaten to use such weapons. This expenditure—up from $91 billion in 2010—casts serious doubt on the sincerity of leaders’ pledges to work for a world free from nuclear arms, suggesting instead a commitment to retain such weapons indefinitely. Beyond the pro-disarmament rhetoric of the nuclear-armed states is the disturbing reality of a massive effort to bolster the world’s nuclear forces, the consequences of which are potentially catastrophic.

Nuclear weapons: at what cost?

The Global Zero group of ex-military and political leaders has calculated that the United States will spend US$61.3 billion on its nuclear arsenal this year—more than every other nuclear weapon state combined and twice what it spent on foreign aid in 2010 (US$30.2 billion). Russia is forecast to squander $14.8 billion, China $7.6 billion, France $6.0 billion, Britain $5.5 billion, India $4.9 billion, Israel $1.9 billion, Pakistan $2.2 billion, and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea $0.7 billion.

The design, development, manufacture, maintenance, and modernization of nuclear forces divert vast public resources from health care, education, climate action, disaster relief, and other essential services. The World Bank estimated in 2002 that an annual investment of just US$40 to $60 billion—roughly half the amount currently spent on nuclear weapons—would be enough to meet the Millennium Development Goals by the target date of 2015. With opinion polls in nuclear-armed nations showing strong public support for the total abolition of nuclear weapons—and most political leaders also championing the cause—is it beyond time that these investments ceased.

The promised disarmament dividend

In the years immediately following the cold war, the United States and Russia dismantled several thousand of their nuclear weapons. Over the course of the conflict, the two superpowers had amassed close to 70,000 warheads—enough to destroy every city in the world several times. For a brief period in the 1990s, global military spending began to decline as both countries engaged in significant disarmament. Some nations expressed hope that the new order would result in wealth being redirected towards meeting the needs of the world’s poor.

But the dividend never came. By the late 1990s, military spending was once again on the rise, and the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States in 2001 caused it to skyrocket. In 2010, nations spent an estimated $1630 billion on their armed forces, with the global financial crisis of 2008 barely making a dent in military budgets. Expenditure on nuclear weapons represents 6.4% of the total global military outlay—a sizeable portion considering that only nine nations possess nuclear weapons.

With five of the nuclear powers having made a legal pledge to eliminate their nuclear arsenals—and the other four being obliged under customary law to disarm also—it defies belief that all are wasting billions of dollars strengthening their nuclear forces. By extending the useable lifetime of warheads for several decades—and building new missiles, submarines, and bombers to carry them, as well as new facilities to construct them—nations are undermining disarmament efforts and fuelling a new nuclear arms race.

A diversion of public resources

In 2010, foreign aid by wealthy governments to Africa, the poorest continent on Earth, was a paltry US$29.3 billion, or less than one-third of the amount spent on nuclear weapons. As millions across the globe go hungry and are denied access to clean water and basic medicines, the nuclear-armed nations spend US$287 million every day, or US$12 million an hour, on their nuclear forces.

The US nuclear weapons budget is roughly equivalent to the gross domestic product of North and South Sudan (US$62bn in 2010), whose combined population is 45 million. Total global nuclear weapons spending is more than the gross domestic product of Bangladesh (US$101bn), a nation of 158.6 million people. Just one year of nuclear weapons spending is equal to 42 years of the regular UN budget of US$2.5 billion or 14 years of UN peacekeeping operations. As Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon remarked in 2009, “The world is over-armed, and peace in under-funded.”

Money for nuclear disarmament?

The UN Office for Disarmament Affairs—the principal UN body responsible for advancing a world free of nuclear weapons—runs operations and offices in New York, Geneva, Lome, Lima and Kathmandu, with a total of some 100 staff. In addition to working on nuclear disarmament, it also addresses the threat of chemical and biological weapons, landmines, cluster munitions and small arms. Its annual budget is approximately US$10 million—less than the amount the nuclear-armed nations spend on their nuclear weapons every hour. The global nuclear weapons budget of US$104.9 billion is more than 10,000 times greater than the UN disarmament and non-proliferation budget.

National disarmament programmes are also grossly under-funded. US spending on nuclear warhead dismantlement has dropped dramatically under President Obama. In 2009, it was US$186 million. This was slashed to $96 million in 2010 and just $58 million in 2011. There has been a corresponding decline in the rate of dismantlement, with an estimated 260 warheads taken apart by the United States in 2010 compared with 648 in 2008. In the 1990s more than a thousand warheads were dismantled every year.

US dismantlement work has been scaled back because the same facilities are used for disassembly as for re-assembly. Building new nuclear weapons from old warheads—a process the government refers to euphemistically as “refurbishment” —has taken priority over dismantlement. The United States now spends 1000 times more on the maintenance and modernization of its nuclear forces than it does on dismantling warheads.

US President Barack Obama, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his nuclear-free vision, supports a major boost in US nuclear weapons spending over the next decade. His modernization plan includes the construction of three new nuclear bomb factories. The expected total cost is US$213 billion, which is on top of the regular annual US nuclear weapons budget of more than US$60 billion.

Ending nuclear weapons spending

There is an alternative to this madness. With the global financial crisis prompting governments to cut funding to education, health, and other social services, citizen groups are in the strongest position yet to challenge nuclear weapons spending. Investing billions of dollars in these weapons of terror and mass destruction is an outrage in the best of economic times. It is all the more ridiculous and shameful given the world’s current financial woes.

We must put pressure on national legislators to knock back budgetary requests for nuclear weapons work, and persuade banks, pension funds and other financial institutions worldwide to divest from companies that manufacture nuclear weapons. It is not difficult to come up with better ways to achieve security than investing US$104.9 billion a year in instruments that could turn the world into a radioactive inferno.

Download ICAN fact sheet on nuclear weapons spending

Tim Wright is the Campaign Director at ICAN Australia.

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