Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks during a rally Sunday, Feb. 21, 2016, in Greenville, S.C.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks during a rally Sunday, Feb. 21, 2016, in Greenville, S.C. John Bazemore/AP

Bernie Sanders Looks Pretty Darn Establishment on Nuclear Weapons

Sanders is no outside-the-margin liberal on keeping up America’s nuclear arsenal.

On the campaign trail, Senator Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., has described his policies as “revolutionary” and “radical.” So it’s no surprise that some observers are claiming that his nuclear weapons policies would be extreme as well. But, in fact, Sander’s recent record on this issue indicates he is well within the mainstream.

This month, Sanders has been accused of seeking a “minimum deterrent” of 300-400 U.S. nuclear warheads, down from the 1,550 level set by the 2010 New START treaty. He has also been tagged with wanting to make “major unilateral cuts” to the arsenal (meaning, he wouldn’t wait for Russia to agree to cut their stockpiles, too). Although some of Sander’s supporters might wish it were so, the facts do not back up such assertions. So where are these claims coming from?

Not from Sanders, who has said very little about nuclear weapons during the campaign. “We are spending hundreds of billions of dollars maintaining 5,000 nuclear weapons. I think we need major reform in the military making it more cost effective but also focusing on the real crisis that faces us,” he said in Iowa in November. “The Cold War is over and our focus has got to be on intelligence, increased manpower, fighting international terrorism.”

The misperceptions about Sanders’ policies stem instead from legislation he cosponsored last year. Called the SANE act and introduced by Senator Ed Markey, D-Mass., the bill would save up to $100 billion over 10 years from President Barack Obama’s excessive plan to spend $1 trillion on new nuclear weapons. That is real money that would be better spent on other defense priorities or on domestic needs, such as education and health care.

But if one actually reads the bill, it does not call for a reduction in U.S. nuclear warhead numbers at all, “unilateral” or otherwise. The bill would preserve the U.S. arsenal of 1,550 warheads, and yet save money by not building as many delivery systems (missiles, submarines and bombers) as the Obama administration wants. 

Sanders is carving out a centrist-progressive position: Keep a large nuclear arsenal, but scale back, delay, or cancel programs that are excessive to our core goal of deterring a nuclear attack on America. Build new nuclear-armed submarines, but fewer of them. Build new bombers, but only when you need them. Keep land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs, for now, but don’t build a replacement. And cancel redundant weapons, like the new nuclear-tipped cruise missile. 

Sanders does not believe nuclear weapons respond to the major threats the United States faces today, such as terrorism, cyber attacks, or global warming. And, given budget limits, excessive nuclear spending steals resources from programs to address these higher priorities. New reports from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, or CSIS, and the Center for American Progress, or CAP, make this same point. CSIS warns of the “bow wave” in defense spending that will crest around 2022, pitting conventional weapons against nuclear ones for a slice of the limited budget pie. CAP’s report lays out a realistic plan to save $120 billion while still retaining a formidable nuclear force.

Former Secretary of Defense Bill Perry agrees that we can safely reduce Obama’s arsenal plans and warns further that U.S. overspending will encourage Russia to do the same, ushering in a new nuclear arms race. “We should force a public debate in the United States on the hugely expensive program to rebuild our nuclear arsenal,” says Perry, “a program that we are simply drifting into.”

And as former Secretary of State George Shultz says in a new book: 

"Nuclear weapons were, and are, the gravest threat to humanity’s survival. Their effect in preventing wars has been overrated and reports of the damage they cause tend to be brushed aside…to depend on nuclear deterrence indefinitely into the future, especially when other means of deterrence are available, is foolhardy."

Sanders does not say how many nuclear weapons we need, but others have. Former commander of U.S. Strategic Command, retired Gen. Gene Habiger, told an audience at CAP this month that he thought 200-300 warheads would be sufficient. In a 2012 report, another former STRATCOM commander, retired Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. James Cartwright, former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel (still Republican senator from Nebraska, at the time), Amb. Tom Pickering, and others suggested that a force of 450 nuclear weapons with another 450 in reserve would address all our military needs.

Sanders has not called for reductions of this magnitude. Nor has he joined Perry in his call to eliminate ICBMs. Nor has Sanders gone as far as UK opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn, who said he would never use nuclear weapons, even if attacked. 

The Joint Chiefs of Staff in 2013 told Obama the U.S. could safely reduce by one-third the number of strategic nuclear warheads currently deployed – from about 1550 to about 1100 – and still meet all military requirements, no matter what the Russians did. Obama was reluctant, however, to make these cuts independently of Russia, hoping for a new negotiation that never materialized.

Whoever wins in November will have to grapple with this excessive nuclear budget. Hillary Clinton told a questioner in Iowa in January that spending a trillion dollars on a nuclear reboot “doesn’t make sense to me.” And the Pentagon is already admitting that it can’t afford to do it all.

"Starting in 2021, between 2021 and 2035, it's about $18 billion a year to reconstitute and recapitalize our strategic nuclear deterrent," Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work recently said, "If that comes out of our conventional forces that will be very, very, very problematic for us."

While some may try to paint Sanders' policies as extreme, most nuclear experts would consider them well within the range of realistic plans to downsize a redundant arsenal. 

What makes Sanders’ ideas seem radical is that he might actually implement them.