If Bill Clinton is searching for ways to cut defense spending without reducing important military capabilities and without creating inordinate short-term unemployment, an unclassified General Accounting Office report provides a wonderful guide for reductions in a key area: nuclear weapons.
The GAO report, released in September, tells us that existing B-52 bombers can adequately fulfill the traditional roles of bombers until the year 2030; thus, there is no need to buy more of the $2 billion B-2s.This also raises a question whether modifying existing B-1s to improve their performance is worth that high cost.
The report says the Pentagon made a correct decision in halting production of a new cruise missile for use on bombers. It also says an outlay of $16 billion to modify and continue to operate existing Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles is not worth it.
Further, the GAO declares, the submarine leg of our strategic triad (bombers and land-based ICBMs form the other legs) is even more accurate, economical and survivable than we had assumed.
And, finally - the most significant conclusion of all - the former Soviet Union likely was deterred from an all-out nuclear attack by the very existence of the retaliatory power of our submarines on patrol and bombers on alert.
The GAO language makes it clear we can settle for just B-52s and submarines and forget the ICBMs. Even then, we would still have more nuclear warheads than permitted under the Start II treaty and far more than needed to deter, say, the Russians today.
We could then not only close down all ICBMs but also mothball the brand new B-1s and B-2s: For technical reasons, they're not suited to conventional missions. Because of the high cost of materials in these systems, fewer workers would be displaced per dollar saved than with most other defense reductions.
No one need be concerned that the GAO is a nonmilitary organization making judgments on military systems. The logic behind each of its conclusions has been long evident.
For more than a decade, it has been clear that we no longer need to risk sending bombers over the former Soviet Union on nuclear missions, for which the B-1 and B-2 were designed. The way to attack heavily defended targets would have been to launch cruise missiles from outside the defensive perimeter, which the B-52s can do well.
Besides, we should not forget that the Start II treaty would reduce strategic nuclear warheads from more than 12,000 each to 3,500 and virtually force radical solutions on us.
By following the GAO's recommendation, Clinton would boldly tell us he won't perpetuate outdated and unneeded military systems but also that he is not going to diminish our military strength.