If Washington state were a sovereign nation, it would be the third largest nuclear weapon state in the world.
IN late March, Washington Democratic U.S. Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray wrote to President Obama urging him to cut the U.S. nuclear arsenal by one-third. It was part of a larger proposal on reducing the risk of nuclear weapons they sent to the president with four of their Senate colleagues, including Democratic Sens. Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.
A fine idea, but what does it have to do with the state of Washington? More than you might think.
If Washington state were a sovereign nation, it would be the third largest nuclear-weapon state in the world.
Naval Base Kitsap is home to more than half of the U.S. Navy’s ballistic-missile submarine force. There are some 1,350 nuclear weapons based there. Each one is six to 30 times more powerful than the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima.
Kitsap plays an important role in the state’s economy, with some 14,000 civilian and 13,000 military positions. That is a lot of jobs and an important reason why many officials support the base and support building new weapons for the fleet.
But there are other important factors we must weigh, including moral ones.
Pope Francis says, “Spending on nuclear weapons squanders the wealth of nations.” The Pope condemns the indiscriminate nature of these weapons, their potential for mass-killing and says we must all reject any strategy based on nuclear weapons, including deterrence of attack from other nations.
Defense experts worry that our building more weapons would stimulate arms programs in other nations. “We are now on the verge of a new nuclear arms race,” warned former Secretary of Defense Bill Perry. “We are drifting back to a Cold War mentality.”
Here is his worry: The Pentagon is planning to spend $1 trillion on new nuclear bombers, missiles and a fleet of 12 new submarines in the late 2020s. Other nations would struggle to keep pace.
There is another problem: The Navy cannot afford to build the nuclear fleet it has designed. In fact, the Navy would need to cut 32 other ships to pay for the nuclear subs, the Congressional Research Service calculates.
These conventional ships are needed around the world every day to protect our nation and serve our troops deployed in war zones. They launch strikes against the Islamic State, patrol the South China Sea and interdict pirates around the Horn of Africa.
Our National Guard depends on these ships to respond to the call to active duty. Organizations providing humanitarian relief efforts around the world use them to carry food, medical facilities and equipment.
Do we ignore these pressing national security risks and push for more nuclear weapons? There may be a middle ground: Keep the nuclear fleet, but reduce its numbers.
“We’re holding far more nuclear weapons than are necessary, and the cost is undermining other national security priorities. It’s time we take a long look at how we can responsibly reduce our stockpile,” wrote Democratic U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California recently.
Feinstein, Cantwell and Murray are in good company: The Joint Chiefs of Staff have already concluded that we can cut our nuclear force by a third and still have an effective deterrent. Some, including Perry, say we could safely eliminate all our land-based missiles. We could consider modestly reducing the sea-based force to eight submarines (half or more based at Kitsap). With that number, we could still keep 1,000 warheads at sea, more than enough for any conceivable military mission. Kitsap would continue to have a mission and the thousands of jobs that come with it.
If Washington’s political and business leaders support responsible reductions in the nuclear force and developing other vital defense missions for the base, they could provide a model for the rest of the nation on how to adjust a Cold War legacy to the security needs of the 21st century.