Defense Bill Bars Unilateral Nuclear Reductions, Orders Posture Review

November 2000

By Philipp C. Bleek

On October 30, President Bill Clinton signed the fiscal year 2001 National Defense Authorization Act (H.R. 4205), which contains several provisions impacting the future of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. The act, a 500-page document addressing a wide range of military activities, maintains a previously legislated restriction on unilateral nuclear reductions below START I levels, calls for a strategic review of U.S. nuclear weapons policy, and mandates research on how to defeat hardened targets.

Despite efforts of several Democratic senators to the contrary, the act prohibits the United States from reducing its deployed strategic nuclear arsenal below START I levels of about 6,000 warheads until START II enters into force. First included in fiscal year 1998 legislation and originally intended to pressure Russia to ratify START II, the restriction prevents the president from unilaterally reducing U.S. strategic forces.

Senator Bob Kerrey (D-NE) has unsuccessfully offered language repealing the restriction every year since it was implemented. This year, support for the senator's amendment built after Republican presidential nominee George W. Bush announced May 23 that he would unilaterally reduce U.S. nuclear forces if elected. In June, Senator John Warner (R-VA) offered an alternative amendment that would have lifted the restriction after a strategic review, effectively barring Clinton from making reductions during the remainder of his term. (See ACT, July/August 2000.) Warner's amendment defeated Kerrey's in an essentially party-line vote but was subsequently removed during House-Senate committee negotiations after Warner reportedly made it known that he would not object if his language were dropped. Warner's staff declined to comment on the report.

As a result, the United States cannot lower its strategic nuclear arsenal below START I levels, despite the fact that both Congress and the executive branch support further reductions. The Senate ratified START II, which reduces the deployed strategic arsenal to 3,000-3,500 warheads, by an overwhelming majority in 1996, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff have approved cutting nuclear forces to 2,000-2,500 warheads in the context of a START III agreement, a move the White House also supports. (See ACT, June 2000.)

Russia ratified START II in May—removing the original justification for the restriction—but it made entry into force contingent on the Senate's passage of a group of 1997 agreements that extend START II's implementation deadline and amend the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. The White House has refused to submit the package for consideration, effectively stalemating START II implementation, because the Senate has indicated it will reject the ABM Treaty-related protocols. Ironically, while Republican nominee George W. Bush has pledged to pursue unilateral reductions, his Democratic opponent, Al Gore, has emphasized that he would only seek treaty-based reductions.

The act also requires that a comprehensive nuclear posture review be conducted "concurrently" with the upcoming Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), a thorough assessment of U.S. military policy conducted by the Pentagon. The nuclear posture review, which must be submitted to Congress with the QDR in December 2001, is tasked with examining all aspects of U.S. nuclear strategy, including the role of the arsenal, its size, and the weapons complex required to maintain it. The act also requires the review to address "the relationship among United States nuclear deterrence policy, targeting strategy, and arms control objectives." Prior to the legislation's passage, both Bush and Gore had pledged to conduct a nuclear posture review if elected. (See ACT, September 2000.) The last such review was conducted in 1994.

While calling for a far-reaching review to re-evaluate all facets of U.S. nuclear policy, the act notes that it is the "sense of Congress" that given the potential for further strategic arms reduction agreements with Russia, maintaining a strategic triad of bombers, long-range ballistic missiles, and submarine-based ballistic missiles is "in the national interest." The bill requires the secretaries of defense and energy to submit by April 15 a long-term plan for sustaining and modernizing all legs of the nuclear triad.

The authorization act also requires the secretary of defense, in conjunction with the secretary of energy, to complete a study by July 1 "relating to the defeat of hardened and deeply buried targets," and it authorizes "limited research and development" on the subject. Senators Warner and Wayne Allard (R-CO), who offered the language, had originally attempted to overturn a 1994 provision barring research and development of low-yield nuclear weapons, but their amendment was moderated in committee. The final version does not make explicit reference to nuclear weapons, but both senators have publicly stated that the language is intended to facilitate research on developing low-yield nuclear weapons.