Washington: Under pressure to trim the massive US defence 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 USD 450 billion in spending over the next 10 years and possibly another USD 600 billion if Congress fails to agree a deal on slashing the deficit, Defence 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 USD 50 billion a year on the nuclear force and he and 64 other Democrats in Congress have called for a cut of USD 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 Defence 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 USD 50 billion but USD 21.4 billion.