Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld is taking steps to reduce modestly all three arms of the nuclear triad in what appears to be the first stage of the unilateral nuclear cutbacks promised by the Bush administration. The secretary said he intends to retire the Peacekeeper ICBM, reduce the number of deployed B-1B Lancer bombers by a third, and study converting two Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines to play a conventional role.
Testifying before the House Armed Services Committee June 28, Rumsfeld said that both he and the Air Force had concluded that the Peacekeeper missile, also known as the MX, was “not needed.” The Air Force is seeking $4.9 million for 2002 to prepare for Peacekeeper dismantlement. The missiles are scheduled to be taken out of service between 2003 and 2005, with final dismantlement activities concluding in 2007.
The Peacekeeper is the United States’ newest ICBM, deployed under President Ronald Reagan in the early 1980s. Like the heavy, multiple-warhead Russian ICBMs, the Peacekeeper must be eliminated under the START II agreement, whose entry into force remains stalled. Currently, the United States has 50 Peacekeepers deployed.
The administration is prohibited from reducing U.S. nuclear forces below START I levels by language first included in the fiscal year 1998 National Defense Authorization Act. Intended to prevent then-President Bill Clinton from unilaterally reducing strategic forces, the language specifies that Pentagon funds may not be used to “retire or dismantle” strategic weapons below set levels, including “50 Peacekeeper intercontinental ballistic missiles.”
Pentagon Comptroller Dov Zakheim indicated at a June 27 press briefing that the administration was seeking “relief” from the restriction for all weapons systems, not just for the Peacekeeper missile.
That same day, Senator Mary Landrieu (D-LA) and Representatives John Spratt (D-SC) and Ellen Tauscher (D-CA) introduced the Nuclear Threat Reduction Act in both houses of Congress. The legislation would lift the restriction while also calling for reductions in the alert status of weapons and the acceleration of nuclear threat reduction efforts in Russia.
Rumsfeld also indicated in testimony to both houses of Congress that the Air Force had recommended reducing the fleet of B-1B Lancer bombers from 93 to 60 and reducing the number of B-1 bomber bases from five to two, a recommendation he indicated was already being implemented. The Lancer currently carries conventional weapons but is nuclear capable.
Lawmakers from states due to lose their bomber contingent expressed anger during the hearings. Senator Pat Roberts (R-KS), whose state is slated to lose its bombers, informed Rumsfeld that he was going to “make every effort” to block the decision until he is “confident” that it “fits into our national defense strategy.” Other lawmakers echoed his sentiments. Roberts was particularly upset by an Air Force memo he obtained that discussed the political necessity of maintaining bases in Texas and South Dakota, home to President George W. Bush and Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, respectively.
The plan to study the conversion of two Ohio-class submarines to carry conventional cruise missiles appears to have generated little congressional interest. The United States currently deploys 18 of these nuclear-capable submarines, each of which carries 192 nuclear warheads, but four of those submarines are due for retirement by 2003.
The proposed reductions mesh with Bush’s plans to reduce the size of U.S. nuclear forces. During a May 1 speech at National Defense University, Bush said that he intends to develop a new framework that would “encourage” cuts in nuclear weapons and that he is “committed to achieving a credible deterrent with the lowest possible number of nuclear weapons consistent with our national security needs.” (See ACT, June 2001.)