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former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
Congress Critical of Bush Nuclear Weapons Budget

Karen Yourish Roston

As they make their annual rounds on Capitol Hill on behalf of the president’s proposed budget, Bush administration officials are finding themselves in the hot seat defending President George W. Bush’s fiscal year 2005 request for the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator (RNEP). Lawmakers are also peeved that they have yet to receive the administration’s overdue nuclear stockpile report.

Arms Control Today reported last month that the president’s 2005 budget proposal lays out a five-year schedule for RNEP that foresees production of the new weapon by the end of fiscal year 2009. (See ACT, March 2004.) Administration officials maintain the program is still in the study phase and that no decision has been made to develop or produce the weapon, but they have not convinced key members of Congress.

“I find it really hard to conceive of any circumstances under which this country would even use a nuclear weapon again,” Rep. David Hobson (R-Ohio), chairman of the House Appropriations energy and water subcommittee, told Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham at a March 11 hearing. “Despite those constraints, [the Department of Energy] seems to think they should spend another half a billion dollars of taxpayers’ dollars to explore and test the concept of Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator.”

During a March 23 hearing, Hobson’s Senate counterpart, Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), traditionally a staunch supporter of the Energy Department, told Linton Brooks, head of the department’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), that he was “surprised” to see nearly $500 million provided for the RNEP in out-year funding.

Moreover, both lawmakers expressed frustration at the administration’s failure to deliver a nuclear stockpile plan to Congress.

“This kind of, quote, Money is no object, unquote, thinking might have been the norm for the nuclear weapons complex during the Cold War years, but I think it’s completely out of touch with the political and fiscal realities that we face today,” Hobson said. “[U]ntil we receive a revised stockpile plan from [the Department of Defense] that shows real change in the size and the composition of the stockpile, and until [the Energy Department] re-calibrates its planning, workforce facilities, and budget to support the smaller stockpile, I do not believe that we should spend our limited budget resources on expansion of NNSA’s nuclear weapons activities.”

Facing similar prodding from Domenici, Brooks responded that the report “is being worked on, literally, as we speak, but because of the importance, I think this will have to be personally approved by the president and I can’t predict how long that will take.”

Still, Brooks did clarify at a March 24 hearing before the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces that, although the United States plans to "substantially" reduce its deployed strategic nuclear arsenal to between 1,700 and 2,200 warheads as called for by the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT), it will retain a significant number of additional warheads in storage. He said “sufficient warheads” need to be retained “to augment the operationally deployed force in the event that world events require a more robust deterrent posture.”

Signed May 24, 2002, by Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin, SORT requires the United States and Russia each to reduce its number of deployed strategic warheads from today’s 5,000-6,000 to no more than 2,200 by the end of 2012, when the treaty will expire. The agreement requires that the warheads be removed from their delivery systems but does not require their destruction, permitting each side to keep as many warheads and delivery vehicles as they want for future use. Washington intends to store enough so it could field up to 4,600 warheads in as little as three years after the treaty ends. Secretary of State Colin Powell acknowledged in Senate testimony in July 2002 that the accord does not limit the amount of warheads either country can possess. “The treaty will allow you to have as many warheads as you want,” Powell stated. (See ACT, September 2002.)

Even as he battled over the stockpile plan, Brooks characterized RNEP as “the single most contentious issue in our budget.” He said the out-year projections are included in the budget request only “to preserve the president’s option,” should he decide to move beyond the study stage.

“[T]here is a clear military utility to this weapon,” Brooks stated. “[D]espite this obvious utility…we will move beyond the study stage only if the president approves and if funds are authorized and appropriated by Congress.”

The nonpartisan Congressional Research Service noted in a March 8 report that the president’s 2005 budget plan casts “serious doubt” on administration claims that the RNEP is just a study.

Nuclear earth penetrator weapons, sometimes called “bunker busters,” burrow deeply into the ground before detonating, increasing their ability to destroy hardened underground targets. In May 2003, the Air Force began studying modifications to convert existing B61 or B83 nuclear bombs to an earth penetrator configuration.

Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-Calif.), a member of the House Armed Services Committee, argued in a March 8 letter to Brooks that “the planning and budgeting for further steps in the…process in the next five years speaks to a clear intent to develop these modified nuclear weapons at a time when the feasibility study has not been completed and the Department of Defense has not submitted a request for this weapon.”

Some in Congress are more forgiving. Sen. Wayne Allard (R-Colo.), chairman of the Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces, said during the March 24 hearing that the administration is “kind of caught between the rock and a hard spot.…[I]f you don’t put in the money, then somehow or the other they think you’re hiding it. If you do put in and you save for it, then you can be accused of trying” to move ahead with the program without congressional approval.

“I’ve looked at this figure, too, and that, obviously, sticks out there,” Allard continued. “But, on the other hand, I think we need to have some estimate in case we decide to move ahead with [RNEP] about where those future costs will be.”

Corrected online August 29, 2008. See explanation.