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Congress Leaves Nuclear Issues in Limbo
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November 2014

By Kingston Reif

Lawmakers left Washington for November’s congressional elections without resolving a host of key nuclear weapons policy and budget decisions for fiscal year 2015, which began Oct. 1.

Congress failed to pass a final National Defense Authorization Act, a sweeping bill that establishes spending ceilings and legislative guidelines for Defense Department programs and the activities conducted by the Energy Department’s semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA). The initial House and Senate versions of the legislation contain different policy provisions on issues ranging from implementation of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) to nuclear security cooperation with Russia.

Congress also did not approve any fiscal year 2015 appropriations bills, opting instead to extend the previous fiscal year’s funding levels until Dec. 11. The absence of new legislation leaves unsettled a disagreement between the House and Senate about whether to fund the administration’s plans for a new fleet of nuclear-armed air-launched cruise missiles (ALCMs).

Meanwhile, Pentagon officials continue to raise doubts about the feasibility of the overall U.S. nuclear modernization plan in the face of projected military spending reductions mandated by Congress in the 2011 Budget Control Act. Plans to maintain and rebuild the nuclear triad of air-, land-, and sea-based weapons and their associated warheads could cost $355 billion over the next decade, according to a December 2013 analysis from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.

The USS Wyoming, an Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine, returns to Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay in Georgia on June 28.  The Navy is planning to replace the Ohio-class submarines, but the cost of the replacement is prompting a debate in Washington. (U.S. Navy)Frank Kendall, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology, and logistics, told reporters on the sidelines of the Air Force Association’s annual meeting on Sept. 17 that nuclear modernization is “a big challenge” and “a lot of things [will] have to be paid for at the same time,” according to the Breaking Defense website. Two weeks later, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus stated at a press briefing that the country must begin a debate about how to pay for the cost of building a fleet of 12 new, nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines. He added that if the Navy is forced to foot the entire bill, it would “break something else” in the Navy’s budget.

In comments at an Oct. 7 roundtable discussion with reporters, Andrew Weber, outgoing assistant secretary of defense for nuclear, chemical, and biological defense programs, said the growing cost of nuclear weapons “causes us to have to take a hard look at the priorities. What are the trade-offs? Is [the] current strategy affordable and executable, or does it need to be modified?”

The White House is currently overseeing an interagency review of the multibillion-dollar modernization plans, which will inform the administration’s fiscal year 2016 budget request to Congress. (See ACT, September 2014.)

House GOP Targets New START

The House version of the defense authorization bill seeks to prohibit funding to implement New START reductions until Russian armed forces “are no longer illegally occupying Ukrainian territory” and Russia “is respecting the sovereignty of all Ukrainian territory.” The bill would also condition funding for New START on a return by Moscow to compliance with the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) and Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) treaties.

The U.S. State Department determined earlier this year that Russia is in violation of its obligations under the INF Treaty. (See ACT, September 2014.) Russia suspended its implementation of the CFE Treaty in December 2007.

The House passed its version of the defense authorization bill on May 22 by a vote of 325-98. The next day, the Senate Armed Services Committee passed its own version, which does not place constraints on New START implementation. The full Senate has yet to debate the committee measure.

The Republican majority in the House has sought to legislate curbs on implementation of New START in every defense authorization bill it has passed since the treaty entered into force in 2011. But the Democratic-led Senate successfully watered down or blocked these efforts in the final version of the bills.

The pending House legislation also seeks to place certain restrictions on the Pentagon’s and the NNSA’s nuclear material security cooperation programs with Russia (see page 28). In addition, it requires the maintenance of 450 operational Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) silos. The provision does not include an end date for that requirement.

The Senate bill, on the other hand, does not restrict nuclear security cooperation activities with Russia. The Senate legislation also does not include a directive on how many ICBM silos the Pentagon must keep.

The schedule for final passage of the defense authorization bill remains uncertain. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said in late September that he expects Congress to pass a bill when lawmakers return during a postelection session.

Levin also said that members and staff of his committee and its House counterpart have begun meeting behind closed doors to discuss reconciling differences between the two bills.

New Cruise Missile in Doubt

Meanwhile, the House and Senate Appropriations energy and water subcommittees allotted different amounts for the ALCM warhead life extension program for fiscal year 2015.

The Senate subcommittee did not fund NNSA’s $9.4 million request to study refurbishment of the warhead, citing concerns that the Air Force has yet to identify sufficient funding to design and build a new cruise missile to deliver a life-extended warhead. The Air Force’s fiscal year 2015 budget request delayed the new missile program by three years.

In contrast, the House of Representatives approved $17 million for the study of the cruise missile warhead.

The fiscal year 2015 appropriations legislation signed into law by President Barack Obama on Sept. 19 funds all government programs at last year’s levels from Oct. 1 to Dec. 11. According to a congressional staffer, the NNSA cannot spend money on the ALCM warhead study under the law, known as a continuing resolution, because the program is considered “a new start” that was not funded in fiscal year 2014.

At the Oct. 7 discussion, Weber said that the administration is examining whether the United States could “live with perhaps either delaying or forgoing the follow-on to the ALCM,” given that the B61 gravity bomb is undergoing a major upgrade.

It is unclear what kind of appropriations legislation Congress will pass once the current legislation expires on Dec. 11. One option is to approve another short-term continuing resolution. Another option, which Congress chose last year, is to pass an omnibus appropriations bill that provides new funding for Defense Department and NNSA programs.

Posted: November 4, 2014