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To Save Lives, Cut Pentagon Spending

Public Citizen News / November-December 2021

By Robert Weissman

This article appeared in the November/December 2021 edition of Public Citizen News. Download the full edition here.

At Public Citizen, we do big things. Fight for Medicare for All. Defend our democracy. Combat the framework of corporate globalization. Force financial regulators to prioritize climate change. And on and on. We don’t shy away from tough fights and over our five-decade history, we’ve shown that we can win on the big issues – and win far-reaching reforms even when we fall short of our ultimate goals.

But we also know the possibility of game-changing, technical work. And the value of narrower measures in focusing attention on big problems and making important changes in specific policies. Often, this kind of work is quintessential Public Citizen, because it showcases our technical expertise, our strategic savvy and our broad portfolio.

Case in point: As this issue of Public Citizen News goes to press, we are championing an amendment to the annual Pentagon spending bill that would redirect money away from a nuclear bomb toward building out global COVID vaccine manufacturing capacity. The U.S. Senate amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act, introduced by U.S. Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), would reallocate $98 million in funding – just a small fraction of the $750 BILLION Pentagon budget – away from the B-83 gravity bomb program and into global COVID vaccine production efforts.

This work marries our campaigning for global COVID vaccination with our program to reallocate Pentagon spending to priority human needs. In these areas, we are campaigning for big things: a $25 billion manufacturing plan for COVID vaccine production and reallocating tens or hundreds of billions of dollars away from Pentagon spending.

But this targeted amendment enables us to tell a very digestible story: Take money away from a program of mass annihilation and devote it to one that could help save millions of lives.

The B-83 gravity bomb is an outdated Cold War weapon. President Barack Obama made the decision to retire the system, but the Trump administration undid this decision. The program is becoming increasingly expensive and has been rendered unnecessary even in Pentagon terms by the development of a replacement bomb with the same functionality. The B-83 is a particularly atrocious weapon. The weapon is indiscriminate and would cause immense collateral damage if ever utilized. For context, just one of these weapons yields nearly half of all the explosives used in World War II, including both atomic bombs.

Meanwhile, repurposing the $98 million allocated to the B-83 to addressing COVID could have dramatic, lifesaving effects. Right now, global vaccine apartheid persists, with rich country vaccination rates about 33 times the levels in the poorest nations. If reallocated, $98 million could help fully fund the World Health Organization vaccine hub and other efforts to boost vaccine production capacity in Africa and low- and middle-income countries globally.

To state what should be obvious: Not only is supporting global vaccination the right thing to do; not only is it cost-effective in comparison to rampant Pentagon spending, even if you believe that more Pentagon spending helps protect the nation; but vaccinating the global population ranks among the top, short-term security interests of U.S. national security. So long as the pandemic continues to rage around the world, new variants will emerge and make their way to the U.S., with potentially devastating effects.

The U.S. House of Representatives moved to eliminate funding for the B-83, so it’s very possible that we can get it out of the final defense spending bill. However, there are major obstacles: Senate procedures that make it hard for amendments to gain proper consideration and the raw power of the military-industrial complex, which opposes any Pentagon cuts no matter how wasteful the targeted spending.

It’s hard to imagine a more perfect juxtaposition of competing priorities than a dangerous, outdated nuclear weapon, on one hand, and new investments in vaccine production to end the global pandemic, on the other. These are the kinds of choices embedded in so many policy decisions in Washington – not just budgetary matters – but too often masked to the public. A big part of our job is ripping off those masks and demonstrating the choices before us – and the powerful corporate interests distorting democratic decision-making. But that’s only the first step – our primary objective is to win real changes that make a difference in people’s lives. In this case and so many others, that’s exactly what we’re doing.