WASHINGTON — Under pressure to trim the massive US defense budget, the Pentagon is considering cuts to the country's formidable nuclear arsenal, a costly pillar of American military power.
But there is disagreement over how many atomic bombs the United States requires in the post-Cold War era and debate over the estimated price tag of the atomic weapons.
"America needs another nuclear weapon like Lady Gaga needs another outfit," said Representative Ed Markey, a Democrat who wants Congress to scrap what he calls "unnecessary weapons."
With the Pentagon forced to cut at least $450 billion (330 billion euros) in spending over the next 10 years and possibly another $600 billion if Congress fails to agree a deal on slashing the deficit, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is looking for potential savings in the nuclear force's budget.
"Our top priority is maintaining a nuclear deterrent, but the arsenal may not need to be as large as it is," said Pentagon press secretary George Little.
But it was too early to say what cuts might be pursued because "this is in the possibility phase right now," he added.
The Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) with Russia ratified early this year already calls for scaling back the number of American nuclear warheads and missiles. Under the treaty, the United States has to draw down its current force of 1,790 warheads to an agreed maximum of 1,550.
Reducing the budget for atomic weapons could offer substantial savings for the Pentagon, but exactly how much money is a matter of dispute.
According to Markey, the United States spends more than $50 billion a year on the nuclear force, and he and 64 other Democrats in Congress have called for a cut of $200 billion over the next decade.
"Each submarine carries an estimated 96 nuclear warheads. Each submarine is capable of destroying all of Russia's and China's major cities. Why then do we need all of these weapons?" Markey and his fellow Democrats wrote in a letter last month.
But the government's complicated accounting for the nuclear budget, which is shared between the defense and energy departments, has led to an argument about the precise cost of the arsenal.
Republican Mike Turner, chairman of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces, says the annual cost of the atomic force is not $50 billion but $21.4 billion.
According to that estimate, the proposed cut of $20 billion backed by Democratic lawmakers would therefore "amount to unilateral and immediate nuclear disarmament by the United States," Turner wrote in a letter to the congressional "supercommittee" tackling the deficit.
The Republican warned that the potential cutback favored by Markey would have "catastrophic impacts to our national security and global security," by undermining maintenance and planned upgrades to atomic weapons.
"No one in the government knows exactly how much has been spent or continues to be spent on nuclear weapons because there is not and has never been a unified, comprehensive budget to monitor all their costs across departments and agencies and over time," according to author Stephen Schwartz, quoted in a blog by Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists.
The government's accounting fails to take into account a range of costs including overheads, research and development, logistics, intelligence programs and training, Schwartz said.
Turner and other opponents of cutting the arsenal believe US nuclear weapons remain a crucial "deterrent" against potential enemies and that major funding is necessary to ensure the force stays credible.
Arms control advocates, however, say savings could be found without affecting American firepower, by cutting the number of nuclear-armed submarines from 14 to eight while loading more warheads on the remaining vessels.
The Arms Control Association argues "the Pentagon could save tens of billions of dollars on new strategic submarines and bombers while still fielding as many nuclear warheads as already planned."
Republican Senator Tom Coburn has proposed cutting the budget for nuclear weapons by $79 billion over 10 years, partly by reducing and delaying new submarine and bomber projects.
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