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Stopping a Dangerous Drift in U.S. Arms Control Policy
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Representative John M. Spratt, Jr.

The United States is facing an increasingly diverse set of threats from weapons of mass destruction. War is looming in Iraq, a crisis is developing on the Korean Peninsula, and Iran is moving to develop nuclear weapons. The terrorists who assaulted the United States on September 11, 2001 may have lacked nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, but they did not lack the malevolence to use them. We find ourselves in a new arms race: one between the efforts of terrorists and rogue states to acquire them and our efforts to stop them.

There may never have been a more appropriate time to ask how we can more effectively reduce the threat posed by weapons of mass destruction and to assess how our nuclear policies help or hinder that goal. Clearly, business as usual is not enough, but we should not slight the steps we have taken—they have helped. A prime example is the Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) program, initiated by former Senator Sam Nunn (D-GA) and Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN), which seeks to secure the arsenals of Russia and other former Soviet states in order to prevent proliferators from obtaining nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons.

The Nunn-Lugar program, based in the Department of Defense, and its companion nonproliferation programs at the Energy and State Departments are entering their second decade, and they have made major progress. As of November 2002, the Pentagon’s threat reduction programs had helped to deactivate 6,020 warheads, destroy 486 intercontinental ballistic missiles, and eliminate 347 submarine-launched ballistic missiles and 97 strategic bombers. Perhaps the best known of the Energy Department efforts, the Material Protection, Control and Accounting (MPC&A) Program, has also established a strong track record. With only a modest budget, the MPC&A program has improved safeguards for 192 metric tons of fissile material, enough for some 8,000 nuclear devices.

Still, much remains to be done. It may seem evident that these programs have proven their mettle and merit more funding, but it is not clear to everyone. From the start, those protective of the defense budget looked upon Nunn-Lugar as an interloper, a way of siphoning money off real defense programs and into “foreign affairs.” A few years ago, when I sponsored the second step of this bill, called Nunn-Lugar-Domenici, I could not convince a single Republican on the House Armed Services Committee to join me as a co-sponsor. And when threat reduction measures are passed, they have often been hampered by “certifications” requirements that have held up funding.

Today’s emerging dangers not only validate the concerns that gave rise to those programs; they call for us to do more. Unfortunately, instead of accelerating our nonproliferation efforts, we are allowing threat reduction to tread water. Perhaps worse, after more than a decade of arms control progress, U.S. policy is now drifting in a dangerous direction as the Bush administration contemplates a resumption of nuclear testing and the development of new “bunker-busting” nuclear weapons.

The Bush administration and the Congress need to boost threat reduction activities and halt efforts to increase the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. national security policy. Morally, these steps will enhance our authority as we move to stop the spread of nuclear weapons. Practically, they will help strengthen safeguards and keep weapons of mass destruction from terrorists and rogue states.

Tepid Support for Nonproliferation

Cooperative threat reduction efforts are slowly but surely undoing the legacy of the Cold War. They are succeeding in spite of impediments, and they deserve more money, more emphasis, and more recognition for what they have accomplished. These programs represent a textbook example of how Congress can innovate and initiate national security policy, but in our system there is no substitute for presidential commitment. Although the Bush administration is officially supportive, its support is hardly zealous. Its stated policies are correct but often not backed up by its budget policies, and the White House seems more inclined toward counterproliferation than nonproliferation.

For example, in the “National Strategy to Combat Weapons of Mass Destruction,” published in December, President Bush declared, “We must accord the highest priority to the protection of the United States, our forces, and our friends and allies from the existing and growing WMD threat.” I agree. But the statement lists “Counter-Proliferation to Combat WMD Use” as first among the “Pillars of Our National Strategy,” coming ahead of efforts to “Strengthen Non-Proliferation to Combat WMD Proliferation.” Certainly, nonproliferation efforts cannot rid the world of all the threats posed by weapons of mass destruction, and we have to have a wide range of counterproliferation programs. But counterproliferation, even when founded on “active defenses,” interdiction, and a “strong declaratory policy” may do little to actually reduce the spread of—and thus the threat from—weapons of mass destruction. The administration’s priorities seem misplaced.

Ballistic missile defense is a prime example of how the emphasis on counterproliferation comes at the expense of nonproliferation. The administration has increased spending on missile defense systems by nearly 60 percent—from about $5 billion two years ago to almost $8 billion in fiscal year (FY) 2003. The request for FY 2004 is more than $9 billion. Yet, during that time, the administration’s funding requests for nonproliferation were comparatively flat. I am a supporter of ballistic missile defense in certain configurations, such as those centered on ground-based interceptors, but I consider it our last line of defense. Furthermore, today’s greatest threats are not ballistic missiles launched by a nation-state, with return address attached, but an aerosol-spray can with biological agents, chemicals released into a ventilation system, nuclear devices buried in cargo containers, or a radiological weapon in the back of a truck. The heavy emphasis on missile defense draws funding and attention away from these other, more likely threats.

The president’s December strategy statement says that “maintaining an extensive and efficient set of non-proliferation and threat reduction assistance to Russia and other former Soviet states is a high priority.” The stress on “maintaining” implies that we are doing all that we can in the realm of nonproliferation and cooperative threat reduction, but that contention is at odds with the evidence. For example, the administration has said it will “encourage friends and allies to increase their contributions to these programs,” but it has not pledged to enlarge our own efforts. There was much clamor over the “10 Plus 10 Over 10” arrangement made among the G-8 nations last June, under which the United States and Europe would spend a total of $20 billion on threat reduction over the next 10 years. But, in truth, that pledge merely committed the United States to its existing level of nonproliferation spending.

The Bush administration’s support for threat reduction efforts certainly does not reach the level suggested by several independent assessments, most notably that chaired by Howard H. Baker, Jr. and Lloyd Cutler, who, in their January 2001 report, urged tripling the funding of the Energy Department’s threat reduction programs. Although the overall defense budget has grown substantially under Bush, funding for nonproliferation stands essentially where it stood in President Clinton’s last budget. And without congressional support, it would not stand there.

In FY 2001, $443.4 million was appropriated for the Pentagon’s CTR program. Bush’s first real budget, FY 2002, proposed to cut 10 percent from the CTR program, and Congress followed his lead, appropriating just $403 million. The president increased his request by only 3.4 percent in his FY 2003 budget, to $416.7 million, and Congress approved that amount. The administration argued that the CTR budget dipped in FY 2002 only because the first part of a major project—construction of the Mayak fissile material storage facility—had been completed, but that does not explain the modest request for FY 2003.

In fairness, the administration has just proposed a robust increase in the Pentagon’s CTR program for FY 2004, including an especially welcome request for accelerated work at the Shchuch’ye chemical demilitarization facility. But two-thirds of nonproliferation funds flow through the Energy Department, and the president’s FY 2004 request for those efforts is essentially flat compared to last year. The new request follows a trend that dates back to Bush’s first budget. After $864 million was appropriated for Energy Department nonproliferation programs in FY 2001, President Bush proposed a cut of nearly $100 million in his FY 2002 request. Only congressional action, spurred by the reaction to September 11, boosted funding to $803.6 million, and with emergency supplemental appropriations approved later, the total amount eventually reached $1.06 billion.

At first glance, the president’s initial FY 2003 budget request of $1.11 billion for the Energy Department’s nonproliferation programs seemed to represent an increase over the 2002 enacted level. However, the increase was deceptive for two reasons. First, the FY 2003 request included $49 million for a program transferred from the Department of Defense (elimination of weapons-grade plutonium at the Tomsk and Kransnoyarsk reactors). Second, the U.S. plutonium disposition program received a $108 million (45 percent) increase in the president’s budget, going from $241 million in FY 2002 to $350 million in FY 2003. If the president’s request is adjusted to exclude the transfer of the Pentagon program and include only the nonproliferation activities outside the United States, the president’s budget for Energy Department nonproliferation programs actually represented a $71 million (9 percent) decrease from the 2002 enacted level.

The FY 2004 request for Energy Department programs, released earlier this month, is similarly deceptive. The total appears to jump by 30 percent, from an amended FY 2003 request of $1.03 billion to an FY 2004 request of $1.34 billion. But the funding request is skewed by an increase of more than $300 million for a mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel fabrication facility in Aiken, South Carolina. The MOX facility is crucial: it could eventually process about 34 metric tons of weapons-usable plutonium into commercial nuclear fuel as required by a 2000 agreement that commits Russia to doing the same. But the vast majority of funding for MOX remains in the United States, it does not go to Russia. With the $309 million boost to construction in South Carolina set aside, the president’s budget proposes simply to maintain our current level of effort in the former Soviet Union—there is no increase at all.

Signs of a Dangerous Drift

Even with this unimpressive record, my greatest concern is not the administration’s tepid support for threat reduction programs or the questionable wisdom of sinking billions into missile defense as opposed to nonproliferation. My greatest concern is that some in the administration and in Congress seem to think that the United States can move the world in one direction while Washington moves in another—that we can continue to prevail on other countries not to develop nuclear weapons while we develop new tactical applications for such weapons and possibly resume nuclear testing.

The official position of the Bush administration is that it intends to maintain the moratorium on underground nuclear explosions. At the same time, this administration has made plain that it does not support a permanent ban and that it will not seek ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). Furthermore, it has voiced doubts about the effectiveness of the Stockpile Stewardship Program, which is intended to maintain the effectiveness of the U.S. nuclear deterrent without testing. In certain quarters of Congress, there has long been skepticism of the program, and it is not news that a cadre of members wants to see the United States resume testing. What is new is that the administration itself has voiced doubts about Stockpile Stewardship.

In the January 2002 Nuclear Posture Review, for example, the administration raised concern that two to three years are required to prepare for a new test. The review argues that “a two- to three-year posture may be too long to address any serious defect [in the arsenal] that might be discovered in the future.” This concern led to a 2002 study at the Energy Department’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) of options for reducing the lead time required for a test. Last spring, NNSA’s top scientist, Everett Beckner, told my staff that the study would probably conclude that 18 months is the shortest feasible lead-time. But testing advocates in the House pushed for shorter lead times. In the final conference agreement on the FY 2003 defense authorization bill, we reached a compromise by asking NNSA to examine the options both shorter and longer than 18 months and to offer a recommendation among those.

Despite testimony last spring and summer that the administration had no plans to resume testing, a memo was leaked in November from Pete Aldridge, the undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology, and logistics. The memo was directed to the nuclear weapons labs and urged exploration of possible tests. It asked the weapons labs to “assess the technical risks associated in maintaining the U.S. arsenal without nuclear testing” and suggested that “the United States take another look at conducting small nuclear tests.” The memo went on to say, “We will need to refurbish several aging weapons systems” and should “be prepared to respond to new nuclear weapons requirements in the future.”

Indeed, during the 107th Congress, two related efforts were launched to pursue new nuclear weapons. The first supported research, development, and possibly testing of new, low-yield nuclear weapons because some believe they will be needed to counter post-Cold War threats. This proposal went against a law that banned the development of low-yield nuclear weapons—a law that I co-authored 10 years ago with former Representative Elizabeth Furse (D-OR) because I was afraid that pursuing low-yield weapons would lower the threshold for nuclear use. Last year, during debate over the FY 2003 defense authorization bill, House Republicans attempted to overturn that ban via an amendment offered by Representative Curt Weldon (R-PA). I urged Representative Weldon to reconsider his proposal, and we were able to negotiate a modification to the law, rather than outright repeal. In the end, however, the law remained untouched, as the Senate included no such modification in its version of the defense bill, and the House language was dropped in conference. But the issue remains contentious, and repeal of the ban on low-yield weapons was formally endorsed in February by the Republican Policy Committee, an arm of the GOP House leadership.

Support for new nuclear weapons also came from the Bush administration, which requested $15 million last year to study the feasibility of modifying existing warheads to create a “robust nuclear earth penetrator” that could destroy hardened and deeply buried targets. The administration has argued that the nuclear arsenal’s existing earth penetrator, the B-61-11 bomb, has “serious limitations for a wide range of target conditions” and that the study would simply investigate options for “repackaging” an existing warhead to survive earth penetration. The Pentagon has vigorously denied that the study will lead to the development of new nuclear weapons; it argues that the study will almost certainly conclude that its goals can be met by hardening the casings of existing warheads. I was unenthusiastic about funding, but it was authorized and appropriated anyway. Conferees to the Defense Authorization Act did, however, agree to require the National Academy of Sciences to study the effects of using nuclear weapons to attack hardened and deeply buried targets and report to us this summer. The development of these so-called nuclear bunker-busters was also endorsed by the Republican Policy Committee.

One of the early dividends of the Cold War’s end was the drastic reduction in the number of tactical nuclear weapons that the United States and Russia deployed. On our side, the follow-on to the Lance, a battlefield missile, was canceled, and after that, the warhead for a new nuclear sea mine. Then, atomic landmines and artillery shells were retired from service. Once these weapons were removed, senior officers acknowledged that they had had doubts as to their military worth, particularly given the consequences of going nuclear early in any war. General Charles A. Horner came home from the Persian Gulf War in 1991 and told me, “I have seen the future, and it works. Precision-guided munitions and stand-off weapons make nuclear weapons obsolete.”

The United States would be backsliding badly if it resumed reliance on tactical nuclear weapons. That step would be tantamount to saying, “These weapons are like any other.” Surely, that is not the message we want to convey.

Charting a Better Course

Congress has made some attempts to address the existing deficiencies in U.S. nuclear policy and threat reduction efforts. For example, Representative Ellen Tauscher (D-CA) and I introduced the Nuclear Threat Reduction Act in 2001 and again in 2002, and I feel sure we will do the same in 2003. The 2001 bill proposed the following:

  • Reducing the overall number of nuclear weapons in the U.S. stockpile;
  • Reducing, where feasible, the alert status of weapons in our active stockpile; and
  • Increasing threat reduction funding to about two-thirds of the amount the Baker-Cutler report recommended.

In 2002, we called for five steps:

  • Authority that would allow the president to waive congressionally mandated certification requirements that prevent CTR funds from being spent;
  • Expanded accounting and inventory of weapons of mass destruction in the United States and Russia;
  • Targeted funding increases for select nonproliferation and counter-proliferation programs, including MPC&A and Shchuch’ye;
  • Clarification of the Nuclear Posture Review, especially of its implications for the size of the U.S. stockpile; and
  • Codification of the nuclear testing moratorium and a 12-month notification requirement to resume testing.

Some of these provisions have become law in one form or another. But as I noted earlier, funding for CTR and nonproliferation programs has been essentially flat for two years. And our proposal regarding the nuclear test moratorium was, of course, not approved. Here are a handful of steps that should be made a priority in the 108th Congress.

Additional Resources for Nonproliferation

Threat reduction programs at the Defense, Energy, and State Departments have proven their mettle. They have already reduced direct threats to the United States more than even a robust missile defense system could hope.

Virtually every independent analysis of U.S. programs to secure and eventually destroy nuclear weapons and materials in Russia has said we should increase the resources we devote to those efforts. In 2001, the bipartisan Baker-Cutler commission recommended spending $30 billion over the next decade, calling the threat posed by poorly secured nuclear weapons and materials the single greatest security threat facing the United States. Nevertheless, the Bush administration has proposed only select, modest increases for threat reduction programs, and the nonproliferation budget is still dwarfed by the budget for less urgent efforts, such as missile defense.

There is a broad bipartisan consensus that the national security interests of the United States demand more than the status quo on nonproliferation programs in the former Soviet Union and, increasingly, in other nations as well. The president should reconsider his FY 2004 budget request for these critical programs and work with Congress to devote a more appropriate share of our national security budget to them—one that gets us closer to the levels recommended by the Baker-Cutler report.

Codify the Testing Moratorium

With an ever-expanding number of nations looking to develop nuclear weapons, it is critical that the United States affirm its commitment to the nuclear test moratorium by codifying it. Demonstrating our commitment will enhance our standing to argue for a continued worldwide moratorium. The law I proposed last year would provide that the administration can resume tests provided that it gives Congress 12 months’ notice, so that we can thoroughly debate what would represent a major shift in our nuclear posture. I tried to add this language to the FY 2003 defense bill during Armed Services Committee deliberations. When my amendment was defeated in a party-line vote, I offered it as a floor amendment to the defense bill. Although this is serious policy and relevant to the defense authorization bill, the Rules Committee would not allow consideration of my amendment.

Establish a Nonproliferation “Czar”

U.S. nuclear and nonproliferation policy is in a period of transition. In this context, we need someone with the power, access, resources, and ability to focus attention on the issue—a kind of Tom Ridge for nonproliferation. That’s not just my opinion. Panel after panel has recommended creating such a position. In 1995, a panel of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology recommended it. The 1996 Nunn-Lugar-Domenici legislation called for it, after extensive congressional hearings documented the need. In 1999, the “Deutsch Commission” recommended it. And most recently, the Baker-Cutler report called for it. The United States needs a nonproliferation czar, and the position should be established at the president’s initiative. If Congress imposes the requirement on the president, the position is not going to enjoy the stature, clout, and cachet needed to be effective.

Accelerate HEU Disposition

Our nonproliferation programs need support to keep on doing what they have been doing, but it seems time for them to have a new target, a more ambitious goal. For starters, we should expedite the disposal of Russia’s highly enriched uranium (HEU). The United States has taken a few successful steps, chiefly the 1993 HEU agreement, under which we pay Russia to blend down 500 metric tons of HEU into a non-weapons-usable form suitable for reactor fuel. Under the existing agreement, however, the full 500 tons will not be eliminated until 2013. If Russia proceeds with dismantlement of all its nuclear weapons scheduled to be removed from deployment, there will be hundreds of additional tons of HEU in storage, posing one of the world’s greatest proliferation risks. We should accelerate the 1993 agreement and move aggressively to dispose of any additional Russian HEU.

Last year’s Defense Authorization Act authorized $10 million for exploring options to accelerate the disposition of Russian HEU, and the State Department Authorization Act empowered the administration to pursue “debt for nonproliferation” swaps with Russia. The United States should negotiate with Russia to transfer ownership of its HEU stocks to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), in exchange for the IMF discharging some part of Russia’s $6.7 billion debt. The IMF would take title to the HEU and, under our leadership, arrange for it to be blended down. The resulting low-enriched uranium would then be sold as reactor fuel, recouping part or all of the value of the forgiven debt. Russia would reap a financial reward and the global community a significant nonproliferation victory.

Russia’s HEU is a compelling problem because the stockpile is enormous, and the risk that some of it could be pilfered is alarming. However, smaller quantities of enriched uranium are also scattered around the world at some 40-50 research reactors. Most of it is not adequately accounted for, and much of it is poorly secured. These nuclear materials are probably at greater risk of being stolen or misappropriated than Russian HEU, and their security would be another worthy project for the Department of Energy.

If we are to avoid an international security environment even more dangerous than the one we face today—one undeniably even more inimical to U.S. security interests—we must seek new and more effective ways to prevent production and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. We must not merely settle for measures designed to counter proliferation that has already occurred.

We must also re-establish our credibility as an adherent to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. This means we should abandon any push for development of new nuclear weapons, low-yield or otherwise, and reaffirm our commitment to a moratorium on nuclear tests. Only in so doing can the United States credibly urge other nations to cease pursuit of nuclear weapons.

The United States must respond to the unprecedented challenges facing us with a reinvigorated commitment to reduce the threat posed by nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction. This is no time to drift back into dangerous thinking and policies discarded—with good reason—more than a decade ago.


John M. Spratt, Jr., congressman from South Carolina, is the ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee and a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee.


Posted: March 1, 2003