Congress Backs Bush's Defense Budget

Wade Boese

Bush administration nuclear weapons and missile defense funding requests are likely to emerge from Congress largely unscathed, with administration plans having only suffered modest setbacks after several weeks of debate. White House appeals for disposing and securing dangerous arms stockpiles worldwide have won bipartisan backing, although some lawmakers have complained they are too stingy.

In June, the Senate and House of Representatives wrapped up separate reviews of the administration’s proposed $400 billion-plus budget for military spending in fiscal year 2005, which begins Oct. 1. Later this summer, the two bodies will work to reconcile differences between their respective versions of the defense authorization bill and the defense and energy appropriations bills. Authorization bills set policy guidelines and spending ceilings, while appropriations bills more precisely itemize spending.

The Senate and House each approved roughly $416 billion in their appropriations bills, including $25 billion for ongoing military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan that was not part of the original budget submission.

"If we want a missile defense that works rather than one that sits on the ground and soaks up money, we should not shy away from realistic testing requirements."
— Senator Carl Levin (D-Mich.)

"This is just another attempt to research missile defense to death and never build it."
—Senator Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.)

Nuclear Weapons Research Contested

As he did last year, Rep. David Hobson (R-Ohio) mounted the most serious challenge to the Bush administration’s nuclear weapons plans. The chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development turned aside administration requests to research modified and new nuclear weapons, lessen the time needed to resume nuclear testing, and prepare for building a new atomic bomb-making facility. Together, these initiatives would have cost $96 million. (See ACT, March 2004.)

Hobson implied June 9 that he viewed some nuclear weapons spending as excessive and wasteful. Complaining that the “weapons complex is still sized to support a Cold War stockpile,” he stated, “the NNSA [National Nuclear Security Administration] needs to take a ‘time-out’ on new initiatives.” The NNSA is the Department of Energy agency responsible for the nuclear weapons stockpile.

Hobson reserved his greatest scorn for administration proposals to continue investigating modified warheads to better destroy targets deep underground and new warheads with lower yields. A June 18 statement by his subcommittee deemed administration justifications for such projects “superficial.” It further charged that the NNSA’s “obsession with launching a new round of nuclear weapons development runs counter” to U.S. efforts to dissuade other countries to forswear nuclear arms. The NNSA repeatedly says that no decision has been made to develop new weapons.

Although the cuts he enacted might be partially restored when Congress fleshes out its final budget package, Hobson, at least for the moment, succeeded where Democrats failed.

Rep. Ellen O. Tauscher (D-Calif.) led an unsuccessful bid to amend the authorization bill to shift funding for nuclear weapons research to conventional armaments, while Sens. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) fell short in their effort to eliminate such research altogether. Tauscher’s attempt failed by just 10 votes on the House floor, and the senators lost by a slightly larger deficit of 13 votes in the full Senate.

Republicans fended off these Democratic initiatives by emphasizing that the budget only permitted research on and not development or production of new weapons, suggesting that GOP support for the administration’s nuclear weapons plans may have its limits.

Indeed, four Republican senators held off on introducing a proposal to mandate congressional approval prior to an underground nuclear test of a robust nuclear earth penetrator warhead only after receiving assurances that such a requirement already existed. The administration says it has no plans to test nuclear weapons, but it also refuses to seek ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which the United States signed in 1996 and the Senate rejected in 1999.

Missile Defenses Trimmed

Democrats were able to whittle away at the Pentagon’s $10.2 billion request for missile defenses. Yet, the core of the program survived. Senate appropriators matched the administration’s request, while their House counterparts pruned it by roughly a half-billion dollars.

In general, both bodies shifted funding away from nascent projects to those further along in development. The House Appropriations Committee warned the Pentagon June 18 that it “appears to be rushing toward development of next-generation technologies without fully testing or developing the systems that comprise the current generation.”

The Pentagon effort to build an interceptor to strike enemy missiles during their first minutes of flight was treated with healthy skepticism. Senate appropriators more than halved the administration’s $511 million request for the boost-phase system, and House members reduced it by $113 million.

Democrats found themselves alone, however, when they turned their attention toward cutting or constraining more near-term missile defense activities.

These debates largely occurred in the Senate because House Republicans limited debate on what defense proposals legislators could discuss. Democratic senators launched what amounted to their largest offensive against missile defense programs in several years. Their efforts centered on subjecting proposed systems to tougher testing and limiting future deployments.

Current Pentagon plans call for fielding up to 20 ground-based missile interceptors at Fort Greely, Alaska, and Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, by the end of 2005. The Pentagon has also requested full funding for an additional 10 interceptors to be deployed in 2006 and preliminary funding for another 10 interceptors for possible deployment at an undetermined third site, which could be built in Europe (see story). House appropriators cut the funds for the interceptors associated with the potential third site, but their Senate counterparts did not, so it is not clear whether the Pentagon will get this funding.

Democrats charge that the defense will be little more than a scarecrow because it has not undergone operational testing, which is conducted under more realistic conditions than the developmental testing that the missile defense system has been subjected to so far. Democrats point out that the two major components of the interceptor have not been tested together and that past intercept testing has not been sufficiently stressing: a beacon on the target has helped provide initial tracking data to plot the interceptor’s flight path; the same flight trajectories have been repeated every time; and the target cluster has lacked decoys closely resembling the mock warhead, making it simpler for the interceptor to pick out what it should hit. The system has scored five hits in eight intercept attempts, the last of which failed in December 2002.

Republicans beat back by a 57 to 42 vote a June 17 proposal by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) to require that the interceptors undergo operational testing before fielding. GOP senators asserted that the interceptors must be deployed first and then tested.

Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) proposed that the Pentagon develop an operational testing plan and establish cost and performance baselines for the system. Republicans rebuffed his initiative, saying that the system must constantly evolve and baselines and rigid testing plans would stunt its growth.

Moreover, Sen. Wayne Allard (R-Colo.), a staunch missile defense supporter, responded to Reed’s proposal by reading a May 17 letter from the director of the Pentagon’s office of operational test and evaluation, Thomas Christie. “Conducting realistic operational testing in the near-term for the [system] would be premature and not beneficial to the program,” Christie wrote.

Reed called the letter “extraordinary...It says basically this system is not mature enough to test, but we are going to deploy it.”

Instead, the Senate agreed to a counterproposal by the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, Sen. John Warner (R-Va.). It requires the system to be operationally tested by Oct. 1, 2005, but lets the secretary of defense, rather than Christie, define the criteria for what constitutes operational testing. Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) argued to no avail that Warner’s move violates a long-standing law that weapons systems must undergo independent testing. A Pentagon spokesperson on June 25 declined to comment.

Reed made one last stab at imposing operational testing. He called on the Senate to withhold the $550 million allocated to interceptors beyond the first 20 until after the first round of deployment is subjected to operational testing.

Although a different tact, it had the same result. Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) led the Republican rally against Reed’s effort. The 53-45 defeat of Reed’s proposal marked the closest tally of all the Senate votes on missile defense.

Levin also unsuccessfully tried to cap the deployment at 20 interceptors by proposing that the money allocated for the next 10 interceptors be redirected to nonproliferation and anti-terrorism programs. Republicans contended this would disrupt current production lines and jeopardize the system’s expansion. In addition, they charged it represented a false choice, claiming that the other programs were sufficiently funded.

Threat Reduction

Congress fully endorsed President George W. Bush’s request for $409 million—an amount about 10 percent smaller than that granted last year—for the Pentagon’s Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) program to help other countries, particularly those of the former Soviet Union, guard and eliminate their excess weapons stockpiles. The CTR program accounts for about a third of U.S. funding devoted to dealing with chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons and related materials around the world.

While applauding the Pentagon’s recent handling of the CTR program, the House Armed Services Committee released a May 13 statement that it “continues to be alarmed by Russia’s weak commitment to the goals of CTR.” Led by CTR skeptic Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), the committee cited Russian strategic modernization efforts and ambiguities surrounding Moscow’s past chemical weapons program as reasons for concern.

Prodded by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), who helped initiate the CTR program, Senate Republicans tend to be more supportive of threat reduction programs than their House colleagues. This year proved no exception: senators approved measures to remove the $50 million cap on CTR funds spent on countries outside the former Soviet Union and granted the president permanent waiver authority to continue funding Russian chemical weapons destruction activities, even if Moscow does not meet conditions to be eligible for such assistance. The House did not pass similar provisions.

Led by Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), the Senate also called on the Energy Department to establish a program to speed up efforts to secure and dispose of global nuclear materials. A week later, Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham announced May 26 just such a program, the Global Threat Reduction Initiative. (See ACT, July/August 2004.)

Abraham said the new initiative, a consolidation and acceleration of existing programs, would require at least $450 million, but Congress has yet to approve any funds for it. Two separate attempts in the House to shift money to the program were soundly defeated June 25. Although he claimed to be “very supportive” of nonproliferation efforts, Hobson led the opposition against the two proposals, saying, “I view with great skepticism the large increases that are proposed by the National Nuclear Security Administration, particularly when these new initiatives are proposed outside the regular annual budget and appropriations process.”