Credit: TMS illustration by Paul Tong

It was a fascinating outburst. During last week's House of Representatives debate over an amendment to delay spending on a new nuclear bomber, Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Wash.) -- a member in good standing of the bomber lobby -- blurted out that if amendment co-sponsor Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) "wants to look at something [to cut], tell him to look at land-based missiles."

This isn't the first time an influential government official has acknowledged that the Pentagon can't afford to buy new versions of all three legs of the "nuclear triad" -- nuclear bombers, ballistic missile-firing submarines and land-based, Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs). But it may be the best evidence yet of a potential conflict among sectors of the nuclear weapons lobby over whose ox should be gored at a time when Pentagon spending plans could be scaled back by as much as $1 trillion over the next decade under the terms of the Budget Control Act.

Before the statement by Dicks, the most telling evidence of nuclear budget battles to come was an assertion by then-vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. James Cartwright, that despite the Pentagon's belief that "we have to recapitalize all three legs" of the nuclear triad because of the age of current systems, "we don't have the money to do it."

Dicks and Cartwright are both correct. The question is what to do about it.

One step in the right direction comes in a new report from a blue ribbon commission organized by the prestigious anti-nuclear network Global Zero. Cartwright, now retired, served on the panel. Its report calls for reducing the total U.S. arsenal of long-range nuclear warheads by 80 percent, from 5,000 now down to 900 or less. Apropos Cartwright's concerns about the cost of the triad, the plan would eliminate ICBMs altogether.

Ideally, the proposed reductions should be steps toward the longer-term goal of eliminating nuclear weapons altogether. In an era when threats like terrorism, cyberattacks, epidemics of disease and environmental degradation pose the greatest risks to our security, nuclear weapons are largely irrelevant to our safety.

Not only would nuclear reductions make sense strategically, but they offer big budgetary benefits by reducing the costs of the whole nuclear enterprise. The amounts involved are not trivial. Current plans call for buying 100 new nuclear bombers for at least $550 million each, a total investment of over $55 billion. Buying and operating 12 new ballistic missile subs could cost $347 billion or more in the decades to come. Developing new ICBMs would cost tens of billions more. Building these unnecessary systems will pile up hundreds of billions of dollars in additional bills for our children and grandchildren.

The immense costs of sustaining the triad aren't the only budgetary pressures that make across-the-board nuclear modernization a dangerous luxury. The Navy has no credible plan to buy new ballistic missile submarines alongside all the aircraft carriers, combat ships and support vessels it is currently committed to purchasing. And the Air Force has yet to explain how it can afford over 2,400 new F-35 Joint Strike Fighters -- the most expensive weapons program ever undertaken -- along with the proposed new bombers.

These budgetary pressures have a potential silver lining. They may finally force us to have a thorough debate about what is really needed to defend the country in an era of growing deficits and nontraditional threats. Doing so would be a vast improvement over some of the astonishingly ill-conceived proposals emanating from the Republican leadership of the House of Representatives of late, from an effort to hold implementation of the New START treaty hostage to unnecessary spending on nuclear weapons to the proposal for an East Coast missile defense system aimed at an Iranian threat that doesn't exist. These bad ideas will most likely be blocked by the Senate, but the fact that they are even on the agenda speaks poorly of the quality of the current national security debate in Washington.

It's time for a far more disciplined approach to funding our national defense. Cutting nuclear weapons spending is a good place to start.