The Pentagon Budget, Nuclear Weapons and Human Needs

Peace Advocate April 2022

A nurse's scrubs stand out in a row of camouflage pants- Wikimedia Commons

by Jonathan King and Richard Krushnic

One of  the most important determinants of our nation’s policies and actions is the federal budget. Each year Congress votes on the division of the Congressional Discretionary Budget among competing programs – Defense, Veterans Affairs, Health and Human Services, Food Stamps, Agricultural subsidies, Dept of Energy (nuclear weapons), National Science Foundation, and many other agencies and programs. The Discretionary Budget does not include the two major mandatory funds Medicare and Social Security. These are trust funds – citizens pay in and hopefully are paid back. Congress cannot use these funds for other purposes.

A number of  the categories in the annual Congressional budget (from income taxes)  are labeled in the Pie Chart Below:

Figure 1. This pie chart from the National Priorities Project shows the allocation of our Congressional Discretionary Budget among diverse categories. The military sector is under-estimated, since a number of clearly military programs, such as nuclear weapons, and foreign military aid, are listed under the domestic programs. 

The single most important fact is that more than half of the income taxes remitted to the U.S government are spent on Pentagon accounts. Last month Congress voted $782 billion as the 2022 Defense Allocation. This is more than the military budgets of the next eight countries in the world combined, including China and Russia. Such bloated budgets have been voted for for many years, and are not a response to events in China, Ukraine or any actual foreign or military threat. 

In general citizens are not aware of the scale of these expenditures. Though the government is aggressive in collecting income taxes, no agency of the government reports back to the taxpayers how their $$ are being spent. Thus, many Americans assume that taking care of service men and women wounded in war or other military actions, are covered by the Defense budget. In fact, Veterans Affairs and Hospitals are part of the civilian or “domestic” budget, often squeezed by pressures of the military/industrial/Congressional complex to increase funding for the Pentagon.

Tens of thousands of residents of Massachusetts are homeless or on the verge of being evicted and becoming homeless. One of the components of the bloated $782 Pentagon budget is for purchase of new nuclear armed submarines, even though the US already has 14 lethal Ohio Class submarines, each capable of firing 192 nuclear tipped missiles. Canceling two of these unnecessary and provocative new weapons systems would save more than $10 billion dollars. Our state’s share of those funds would be sufficient to provide housing for all those in need.

Over half of the Pentagon appropriation goes to large defense contractors, of which the leaders are Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Raytheon, General Dynamics and Northrop-Grumman. The profits of these corporations are guaranteed by cost plus contracts, legislation prohibiting awarding the contracts to foreign firms, assuring virtual monopolies, and national security arguments used to prevent auditing and close fiscal oversight. 

We believe that if Americans knew that half the income tax dollars they sent to the IRS every year was being spent on weapons, war and war preparation, political support for such programs would sharply decline. Unfortunately, as noted above no Agency of the federal govt communicates back to taxpayers how the Congress spends their dollars. Rep. Carol Doherty and Senator Jo Comerford have introduced a bill into the State Legislature, supported by Mass Peace Action and our allies, the Taxpayers Right to Know Act. This instructs the State Treasurer to communicate to Mass taxpayers how the State and the Federal Government spend their tax dollars. This is a first step toward federal legislation bringing transparency to the Congressional Discretionary Budget.

Pentagon Spending versus Preventing Disease

It’s very difficult to grasp the impact of a $782 billion pentagon budget. One approach is to compare it to other appropriations. For the past two years our nation and all the nations of the world have faced the crises of the coronavirus pandemic. This has killed over 1,000,000 Americans. How did this happen in the richest, most technologically advanced US, and the world leader in biomedical R&D, biotechnology and pharmaceuticals? One major reason has been the failure to invest in these sectors, due to the diversion of tax dollars to Pentagon accounts. The development of diagnostics, vaccines and therapeutics rests on the research federally financed through the National Institutes of Health. The NH Budget of about $43 billion is responsible for developing  prevention and cures of all the diseases that afflict us – Cancer, heart disease, stroke, Alzheimer’s, Diabetes and many others. Many millions of Americans face death from these causes, preventable if we understood more deeply and invested more. Compare the social value of NIH investments with the ~$800 billion defense budget. The new bombers, submarines, and missiles to be purchased don’t house us, don’t clothe us, don’t get us to work, don’t cure or prevent disease, and don’t protect our environment or climate. 

And sadly, these pentagon expenditures will not increase national security, at home or abroad. Rather they will increase the chance of a devastating nuclear weapons exchange. They represent not the needs of the people, but the business plan of the military/industrial complex, which Pres. Dwight D. Eisenhower so tellingly warned us against on leaving office, and Seymour Melman described in detail in the Permanent War Economy and Pentagon Capitalism.

Excessive Pentagon Spending Undermines the Civilian Economy

In addition to increasing the national debt, such a budget will require cutting every sector of the civilian side of the budget – housing, transportation, environmental protection, biomedical research, education and healthcare. For many years caps on these programs have continued to weaken them. The current proposal will continue to weaken the federal contribution to the civilian side of the economy. The primary beneficiary of such a buildup will be the large corporations that dominate weapons contracting. 

Dangers of Nuclear Weapons “Modernization”:

Perhaps the most egregious and dangerous aspect is the further modernization of the nuclear weapons triad – some $2 trillion of our tax dollars proposed over the next 25 years. The first contracts for the upgrading of the nuclear weapons triads have already been awarded – one to Northrop Grumman – for a new generation of long-range bomber, and another for the new generation of nuclear armed  submarines. Great damage can be done with conventional weapons to people and their communities. But the increased investment in nuclear weapons increased the chances of inadvertent or intentional nuclear war. That will cause irreversible damage to human society and to the planet, which in all likelihood will be irreversible. Launching the missiles from a single Trident class submarine would obliterate every major city in any adversary nation. If that nation were Russia, the retaliatory response, following in minutes to hours, would obliterate every city on the East Coast of the United States.

Former US Secretary of Defense William J. Perry thinks that “We are facing nuclear dangers today that are in fact more likely to erupt into a nuclear conflict than during the cold war.”  He notes that the new US nuclear weapons modernization program and Russia’s modernization program, along with confrontations in Eastern Europe and the Middle East have begun a new nuclear arms race more dangerous than the cold war. Such upgrades make it far more difficult for the US to convince other nations to forego development of their own arsenals. Perry is concerned that the vastly increased accuracy of nuclear weapons, making it possible to take out strategic targets with smaller warheads and less collateral damage, makes their use much more attractive and more likely in the coming decade than during the cold war.

More powerful or more accurate nuclear weapons do not protect us from North Korea, Russia, China, or any other nuclear armed nation. They just drive them to upgrade their weapons systems. Nor will these new weapons help the people of Ukraine, who would be decimated in a nuclear exchange That requires ceasefire and diplomacy, not military escalation.

The Role of Weapons Contractors

The ramp-up of nuclear weapons spending started years before the current Ukraine crisis. Why does the Congressional budget still devote tens of billions of dollars to cold war-era nuclear weapons? These weapons cannot be used to combat terrorism in the US or Europe, or ISIS or the Taliban. They cannot protect the people of Ukraine, who would be decimated in a nuclear exchange.  The presence of thousands of US nuclear weapons on hair trigger alert hasn’t prevented the North Koreans from moving ahead with their nuclear programs. Britain’s nuclear weapons did not prevent Argentina from occupying the Falkland Islands. Russia’s nuclear weapons didn’t deter the Chechen rebels from attacking Russia. Neither India nor Pakistan’s arsenals has deterred each nation’s militants from attacking each other across the contested Srinagar boundary in Kashmir. Where does the pressure for these wasteful and provocative programs – which almost certainly decrease national security – come from? 

When challenged, nuclear hawks break out the standard phrases of “National security”, “Nuclear deterrence”, “Mutually Assured Destruction”, “Pre-emptive strikes” and related mumbo-jumbo calculated to activate cold war fears of our citizenry. Rutgers climate scientist Alan Robock and colleagues have shown that even a limited exchange – for example between India and Pakistan – would generate firestorms throwing enough soot and particles into the upper atmosphere to generate a nuclear winter, lowering the Earth’s temperature and creating worldwide famine for decades following. This would result in the deaths of hundreds of millions around the world. 

  Lockheed-Martin Nuclear Weapons Operations

In “Privatizing the Apocalypse:  How Nuclear Weapons Companies Commandeer Your Tax Dollars”, Richard Krushnic and I discussed the profitability of the nuclear weapons work, and how the corporations involved use part of their profits to lobby for more nuclear weapons, and modifications of existing ones.  An example is Lockheed-Martin.

Lockheed is a partner with Bechtel ATK, SOC and subcontractor Booz Allen Hamilton in Consolidated Nuclear Security LLC (CNS), in running the Department of Energy’s Pantex Plant and the Y-12 Complex.  Pantex does nuclear weapons life extension, dismantlement, development, testing and fabrication of high explosive nuclear warhead components.  Y-12 stores and processes uranium, and fabricates uranium weapons components.   

Lockheed produced the Trident strategic nuclear missile for the fourteen US Ohio-Class Nuclear Submarines and for the British Vanguard-Class Submarines.  The 24 Tridents on each Ohio class submarine each carry either 8 or 12 warheads, all of them 20 to 50 times more powerful than the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Each warhead is capable of killing most of the people in any one of the worlds’ largest cities—either immediately or later, from radiation, burns, other injuries, starvation and disease. Previously Lockheed and its subcontractors received $65 million for each of the 651 Trident missiles, in addition to the $35 billion in earlier development costs.  

Regarding the Pentagon’s nuclear weapons upgrades planned for the next decade; particularly important is the role of Sandia National Laboratories (SNL).  Outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico, this Department of Energy lab’s 10,600 employees make 95% of the roughly 6,500 non-nuclear components of all seven US nuclear warhead types. Components arm, fuse, fire, generate neutrons to start nuclear reactions, prevent unauthorized firing, preserve the aging nuclear weapons stockpile, and mate the weapons to the missiles, planes and ships that deliver them to targets. Sandia Corporation LLC, wholly owned by Lockheed Martin, operates Sandia.   

One of the uses of the billions of dollars from these contracts is to recycle them back into lobbying the government to push for additional conventional and nuclear weapons spending, as reported by William Hartung and Stephen Miles. Of course, in addition these funds are used to support a general environment of fear, and insecurity, through contributions supporting hawkish think tanks. Technically the federal government does not allow military contracting firms to use awarded funds to lobby Congress. But Lockheed went ahead and spent military contract funds from 2008-2012 as part of the contract expenditures.  It didn’t even bother to book the lobbying expenditures as expenditures of profits.  The US Department of Justice required Lockheed Martin’s Sandia subsidiary to repay in 2015 $4.9 million of a Sandia contract award to the Pentagon that the firm had spent under the contract for lobbying of Congressmen, the DOE Secretary, and the Secretary’s family and friends.  This, of course, had  no effect regarding future contract awards to Lockheed and its Sandia subsidiary.  

The planned development of a new generation of upgraded nuclear weapons with enhanced destructiveness fails to address any of the real security issues faced by our nation – ISIS, Al Qaeda, domestic terrorists, or streams of refugees. It drains billions of dollars from the real economic needs of upgrading our infrastructure, investing in high speed rail and public transit, developing energy sustainability at a much more rapid rate; tackling the chronic disease scourges such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.  We need Subways not Submarines, Books not Bombs, Fund Healthcare not Warfare.

Efforts to communicate to voters the role of weapons contractors in distorting national security policy are getting underway, following the lead of the European-based “Don’t Bank on the Bomb” campaign.  After the Cambridge City Council passed a unanimous resolution calling for pension fund divestment from nuclear weapons manufacturers, the U.S. Conference of Mayors passed a supporting resolution.  Legislative  supporters of Mass Peace Action currently have a bill in the State Legislature calling for divestment from nuclear weapons manufacturers by the State Pension fund. These are small but important first steps in focusing attention on these corporate drivers of dangerous and costly nuclear weapons policies.


—Jonathan King, Emeritus Prof of Molecular Biology at MIT, is Chair of the Fund Healthcare not Warfare Working Group and Co-chair of the Massachusetts Peace Action Board.

—Richard Krushnic, is active in MAPA’s No Cold War Working Group and the Public Bank Coalition.