President George W. Bush signed the fiscal year 2002 defense authorization bill December 28, clearing a major impediment to promised strategic nuclear reductions.
The bill repeals a restriction, first included in the fiscal year 1998 defense authorization act, that barred reducing the number of deployed U.S. strategic nuclear weapons below START I levels. This limit could be broken if START II, which mandated deeper reductions, entered into force, although only to the extent necessary to implement that treaty. The restriction also banned early deactivation of strategic nuclear weapons systems absent an “understanding or agreement” between the United States and Russia on such actions.
Established in part to encourage Russia to ratify START II, the restriction was maintained by Republican lawmakers intent on preventing President Bill Clinton from unilaterally reducing U.S. nuclear forces. But Congress relented after the Bush administration formally requested relief from the provision, which would have blocked the deep strategic reductions the president announced November 13. (See ACT, December 2001.)
The defense bill also contains language prohibiting expenditures on retiring, dismantling, or transferring B-1B Lancer bombers until a detailed report on Air Force bomber structure is submitted to Congress. Over the summer, the administration announced that it intended to reduce the B-1 fleet from 93 to 60 aircraft and the number of B-1 bases from five to two. (See ACT, July/August 2001.) But lawmakers from states due to lose their bomber contingents have resisted that move.