"I want to thank the Arms Control Association … for being such effective advocates for sensible policies to stem the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and most importantly, reduce the risk of nuclear war."
– Senator Joe Biden
January 28, 2004
Hill Passes Defense Authorization Bill

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Wade Boese

Congress gave its blessing Oct. 9 to the Bush administration’s nuclear weapons, threat reduction, and missile defense plans. But lawmakers did not give the administration everything it wanted and tasked it with making several new reports on U.S. policy.

Approved unanimously by the Senate and 359-14 by the House of Representatives, the fiscal year 2005 national defense authorization bill sets spending caps and policy guidelines for the Pentagon and the Department of Energy’s national security-related programs. Congress approved specific funding levels for the Department of Defense earlier this year in the fiscal year 2005 Defense Appropriations Act, which President George W. Bush signed into law in August. (See ACT, September 2004.) Bush has yet to give final approval to the authorization bill, but he is expected to do so soon.

The new measure imposes a $445 billion ceiling on how much the Pentagon and the Energy Department’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) can spend through Sept. 30 of next year. Established in March 2000, NNSA is a semi-autonomous agency within the Energy Department that maintains the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile and runs programs to secure or eliminate nuclear materials abroad to prevent their spread.

NNSA administers the Bush administration’s most controversial nuclear weapons initiatives, including exploring modified and new types of nuclear warheads, reducing the time needed to resume nuclear testing, and planning for a future facility to annually churn out hundreds of plutonium pits, without which nuclear weapons do not work. The administration sought $96 million for these projects, and the authorization bill matched that request.

Yet, lawmakers signaled that they are not going to give the administration carte blanche. They ordered NNSA to provide a report by March of next year on plans for its Advanced Nuclear Weapons Concepts Initiative, which pertains to studying new nuclear warhead designs. Among the possibilities that the Pentagon has said it might investigate are warheads with explosive yields less than five kilotons, on which Congress lifted decade-old research restrictions in 2003. NNSA officials say they have not yet launched such research.

Congress also mandated two reports relating to the proposed plutonium-pit production facility. One study, due in January, requires NNSA to justify the need for the facility. Another, due in two years, calls for an independent study on NNSA efforts to “understand the aging of plutonium in nuclear weapons.” At what pace and conditions plutonium deteriorates could affect assessments about whether a new facility must be built to ensure that U.S. nuclear warheads have pits that will work properly.

Despite the authorization bill’s endorsement of the above programs, final decisions on funding will be made in the annual energy and water appropriations bill that is still being crafted by members of the Senate and House Appropriations Committees. The Senate side is led by Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Pete Domenici (R-NM), who favors full funding; the House panel is led by Domenici’s counterpart, Rep. David Hobson (R-Ohio), who cut funding for the programs. (See ACT, July/August 2004.)

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham sent a Sept. 8 letter to Rep. C. W. Bill Young (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, urging him to help reinstate the funding. The two secretaries asserted Hobson’s cuts “would impede our ability to ensure the effectiveness of our nuclear deterrent” and could jeopardize the administration’s plans to almost halve the U.S. nuclear stockpile by 2012. (See ACT, July/August 2004.) Their argument is that, in order for the United States to reduce the size of its nuclear arsenal safely, it must have the capability to build additional weapons in case a new threat emerges or a technical problem renders current weapons useless.

Yet, Hobson has not budged, and the standoff with Domenici continues. The disputed programs are currently receiving funding at the same rate they did last year through a continuing resolution that expires Nov. 20.

Lawmakers had fewer disputes over other NNSA programs, as well as those run by the Pentagon, dedicated to helping foreign governments lock up or destroy their nuclear and other weapons-related materials. The Defense Department received its requested $409 million for this mission, and the Energy Department got $1.3 billion for its nonproliferation programs, of which roughly $415 million is strictly devoted to activities overseas.

Congress further empowered the Energy Department to set up a new program, called the “Silk Road Initiative,” to provide alternative employment to people who formerly worked on deadly weapons programs in Central Asia and the Caucasus. Lawmakers recommended that the program start with a $10 million effort in Georgia.

To free up the Energy Department to address what it perceives as more urgent threats worldwide, Congress eliminated a $50 million cap on threat reduction spending outside the former Soviet Union.

By mid-March next year, the Energy Department is to submit an interim survey to Congress identifying and prioritizing for U.S. action the location of all nuclear and radiological materials worldwide that proliferators might try to acquire. A final report is due January 1, 2006.

Another threat legislators want addressed is the risk of an accidental, mistaken, or unauthorized Russian launch of ballistic missiles. The authorization bill orders the Pentagon to provide a report by November 1, 2005, on U.S. and Russian actions taken to minimize this possibility, as well as recommendations on what more could be done.

Developing a nationwide missile defense system has been one of the Bush administration’s top priorities, and it is moving to declare the first interceptors of the system operational before the year ends. (See ACT, September 2004.) Congress has essentially backed Bush at each step, and it did so again in the authorization bill, granting $10 billion of the president’s $10.2 billion request.

Still, Democrats contend the system is unproven because none of its eight intercept tests—three of which failed—came close to mirroring real world-type scenarios. Aiming to stifle their counterparts’ complaints, Republicans included in the authorization bill a requirement that the Pentagon conduct an “operationally realistic” trial of the system before next October. However, the bill leaves it up to the defense secretary, rather than the Pentagon’s top independent weapons tester, to determine what constitutes such a test.

Although the current missile defense system is terrestrially based, future systems might be put into space. Lawmakers want the Pentagon to conduct a comprehensive review of U.S. space policy. In a final report to be submitted by the end of 2005, the defense secretary is supposed to explain objectives for, among other things, “space control” and “space superiority, including defensive and offensive counterspace”.

The defense secretary is also assigned to study whether the Department of State, which is responsible for vetting arms exports, should develop a fast-track process for approving transfers of U.S. missile defense systems and technologies to foreign governments.

The bill further orders that all arms exports involving the United Kingdom and Australia be approved with haste. The administration and some lawmakers sought to waive export licenses and reviews for these two countries entirely, but that proposal failed due to concerns that it could become a loophole for terrorists and hostile regimes to acquire U.S. weapons.