Can the nearly bankrupt United States afford to spend billions more of borrowed money on nuclear weapons that are unlikely to ever be used, and which serve no useful military purpose?
That is the weighty question confronting President Barack Obama as he prepares his overdue Nuclear Posture Review. Each new American president must by law review his nation's nuclear weapons and strategy.
Nobel Peace Laureate Obama will shortly decide what to do with America's 5,500 strategic nuclear weapons -- that possess enough destructive power to destroy the planet at least five times over. Some experts say it's 50 times over.
Obama, strongly influenced by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, is expected to decide to spend US $7 billion modernizing US nuclear weapons and plants. Maintaining US nuclear weapons already costs some $52 billion annually. Nuclear weapons, like people, deteriorate over time, so require regular maintenance and refurbishment.
This is a huge cost at when the nation is running on borrowed money from China and Japan. Russia's total military budget, including nuclear forces, is estimated at around $38 billion -- less than what the US spends on its nuclear arsenal.
President Obama just can't seem to escape the shadow of his bellicose predecessor, George W. Bush. Angry liberals are claiming they were duped into voting for "peace president" Obama who has turned out to be even a bigger military spender than Bush.
The president is also expected to reject a "no first use" policy demanded by senior Democrats, led by California senator Diane Feinstein. Such a pledge would reaffirm the sole purpose of the US arsenal is deterring nuclear attack. Offensive use of US nuclear weapons would be banned under a "no first use" doctrine.
Russia made such a declaration in the 1990's, but today its position is ambiguous. China, Pakistan, India, and North Korea have made no first use declarations.
The NATO powers, led by Britain, still appear to favor a first strike policy even though the reason for it, the threat of being overrun by Soviet tank armies, is long gone.
Israel officially denies having nuclear weapons, and vows not to be the first to introduce them into the Mideast -- which it did decades ago.
President Obama will likely leave open an option to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear nations or anti-American groups -- particularly so if the US is attacked by chemical or biological weapons.
He is following the policy of preemption established by President George W. Bush. Lately, Moscow has also been hinting at such a policy.
Meanwhile, the US and Russia are nearing agreement to cut their deployed strategic warheads by a 1,000 units down to 1,500-1,675 each. But much of these reductions would come by storing rather than dismantling active warheads.
Thousands more tactical nuclear warheads will remain, though Washington hints it might remove some from Western Europe and Asia. Tactical nuclear weapons play a key role in US war planning in halting a North Korean attack on South Korea.
During the Bush administration, the hard right began pushing for use of small, specialized nuclear weapons against deeply buried targets -- like Iranian nuclear plants -- or guerilla groups.
A new, small tactical nuclear warhead, aka "Muslim-buster" -- was evaluated and almost went into production.
Republicans are again beating the war drums over the supposed nuclear threat from North Korea and Iran. They accuse Obama of near treason for having even considered scrapping part or all of America's huge nuclear arsenal, as he once promised to do.
These low-IQ Republican scare-mongers don't know, or don't care that North Korea has no long-ranged nuclear capability, or developed nukes for defense against possible US nuclear attack -- and as a way of extorting funds from the US, Japan and South Korea.
Iran has no nuclear weapons as of now, no long-ranged delivery systems, and poses no threat to the distant US. Why North Korea or Iran would invite nuclear annihilation by attacking the mighty United States or Israel is not explained.
Retired US generals and admirals have repeatedly advocated junking all nuclear weapons, calling them ruinously expensive and of no military value whatsoever. Their production and upkeep drains funds away from conventional weapons systems and ties up substantial manpower.
The 1970 UN Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty mandated all signatories to quickly dismantle their nuclear weapons. The US, Britain, France, Russia, China are in treaty violation. Israel, Pakistan, North Korea, and India refused to sign and secretly built their own nuclear arsenals.
In the 1980's, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev made sweeping proposals for total nuclear disarmament, but President Ronald Reagan foolishly refused to scrap the US nuclear arsenal or his beloved Star Wars anti-missile system. The Soviet military-industrial complex was no happier than its American counterpart to see nuclear arsenals dismantled.
"Peace president" Barack Obama has the chance to get rid of America's largely useless nukes, or at least reduce them to a dozen or so strategic missiles. But while Obama may slightly narrow nuclear doctrine, it appears America's increasingly potent national security complex and irresponsible Republican jingoists have pushed him into retaining and even expanding the nation's nuclear capability.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon is promoting its new "Prompt Global Response" system: US-based missiles with conventional warheads that can rapidly strike anywhere on the planet.
When one of these missiles is fired at some Muslim malefactors in, say Pakistan or Afghanistan, one hopes Russia or China will not confuse it for a nuclear strike aimed at them.
In 1995, Russian air defenses mistook a Norwegian scientific missile fired from Spitzbergen for a US nuclear strike. Russian nuclear missiles came within minutes of being fired at North America. The Cold War was filled with such terrifying nuclear false alarms and close calls.
Global nuclear disarmament can be achieved. It would require intensive inspections of all nuclear-capable powers, including Brazil, Iran, Israel, India, Pakistan, both Koreas, and Taiwan as well as the nuclear great powers. Even Switzerland and Japan could produce nuclear weapons within 90 days.
The most effective method of inspection is to have rival nations -- such as Iran and Israel -- inspect one another's facilities and delivery systems. The UN would add another layer of inspection, as it is doing now, but for all its members.
President Obama should lead the way by sharply reducing, then scrapping America's nuclear arsenal.
Doing so would elevate his now troubled presidency and rank him among the great modern American leaders.
What thwarts the sensible policy of nuclear disarmament is not verification, but political willpower and courage.
The United States is the only nation to ever use horrific nuclear weapons. Accordingly, it should take the lead in freeing humanity from this curse, and setting a proper example for others.