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"The Arms Control Association’s work is an important resource to legislators and policymakers when contemplating a new policy direction or decision."

– General John Shalikashvili
former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
Signed Defense Bills Rebuff Pentagon Plans
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Caitlin Harrington

President George W. Bush recently signed into law two pieces of defense legislation that dramatically curb his administration’s plans to reconfigure the nation’s nuclear forces.

The fiscal year 2007 defense authorization law, which sets broad policy goals and funding ceilings for the Departments of Defense and Energy, and the 2007 defense spending law both reflect lawmakers’ reluctance to alter the nuclear posture of the Cold War era.

Congress has been reluctant to reshape the decades-old nuclear triad, an offensive strategy that offers nuclear strike options from air, land, and sea. Lawmakers have clung to this model because of concerns that changes could be counterproductive for national security and might hurt some of their parochial interests.

The $447.6 billion defense appropriations bill, signed into law Sept. 29, and the $532.8 billion defense authorization measure, signed Oct. 17, both reflect this view. The measures restrict the Pentagon’s efforts to reduce the nation’s stockpile of land-based nuclear missiles, prevent the retirement of some aging Air Force bombers that carry nuclear weapons, and put the brakes on the Prompt Global Strike Initiative plan to convert some nuclear missiles on Navy submarines into conventional weapons.

As envisioned in the 2001 Nuclear Posture Review, the Prompt Global Strike Initiative would allow the Pentagon to use conventional weapons to attack targets anywhere in the world in less than an hour. Under the administration proposal, within two years, the Navy would convert 24 nuclear missiles on 12 Trident submarines into conventional weapons. The administration had asked for $127 million for the plan for fiscal year 2007, which began Oct. 1.

But the recently enacted defense spending and authorization laws deal a major blow to the initiative. The authorization bill delays the Prompt Global Strike initiative until the Pentagon completes a study to address congressional concerns that potential adversaries or third countries might mistake the former nuclear weapons for the real thing. Lawmakers authorized just $32 million to pay for the study. They were even less generous in the defense spending law, which provides $20 million to explore the feasibility of modifying missiles for conventional use and $5 million for the National Academy of Sciences to conduct a study on whether there is a need for a global strike capability and whether there might be other ways to achieve it.

In addition to blocking the Pentagon’s move to switch some missile payloads from nuclear to conventional weapons, Congress also took other steps to preserve the nuclear force structure of the Cold War era. The defense authorization law blocks the Air Force from retiring more than 18 of its 93 B-52H bomber aircraft, which have been the staple nuclear bombers in the Air Force’s fleet for 50 years. The defense appropriations law takes the prohibition a step further, stating that no money may be spent on retiring B-52H bombers until the Pentagon produces a report that analyzes, among other things, the national security implications of retiring the bombers.

Lawmakers from North Dakota and Louisiana, where the B-52s are based, have challenged Pentagon plans to reduce the aging bomber fleet.

The defense laws also take steps to protect land-based nuclear capabilities. The defense authorization law restricts Pentagon plans to cut 50 of the military’s 500 Minuteman III ICBMs, the only such land-based nuclear weapons in service in the United States. The bill would require the Pentagon to produce a plan for extending the life of the arsenal beyond 2030, as well as several other reports, before any missiles could be eliminated. The defense spending law provides $651.3 million for Minuteman III modifications and states that lawmakers “disagree with proposals to terminate the program after fiscal year 2007” and expect the Pentagon to provide funding for the Minutemen III missiles in its fiscal year 2008 budget submission.

The effort to restrict the retirement of Minuteman missiles was led by Senator Kent Conrad (D-N.D.). The 91st Space Wing at Minot Air Force base maintains 150 Minuteman missiles spread across central and western North Dakota.

Missile Defense

Congress appears more receptive to the Pentagon’s emphasis on missile defense as one leg of what it describes as a new triad. The defense appropriations law provides $9.4 billion for missile defense, a 20 percent increase over funding in fiscal year 2006. The defense authorization act fully funds the president’s request at $9.3 billion.

Lawmakers were critical of some aspects of the Pentagon’s missile defense agenda. In reports accompanying the defense spending and authorization bills, Congress criticized the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) for shuffling MDA dollars without first informing Congress. Lawmakers have worried that MDA’s investments in seeking technological advances has come at the cost of nailing down the basics. The current configuration of the Pentagon’s four-year-old ground-based midcourse defense (GMD) system intercepted a test target for the first time in September, but only after interceptors failed to leave their silos during tests in December 2004 and February 2005. (See ACT, October 2006.)

As a result of concerns about MDA priorities, the defense authorization act calls on the Pentagon to emphasize ballistic missile defense systems that can be deployed in the near term. A report accompanying the defense appropriations law labeled as “unacceptable” MDA’s shuffling of funds without congressional oversight and requires MDA to notify Congress before moving funds worth more than $10 million or 20 percent of the program’s value, whichever is less.

Following this logic, the largest share of MDA funding will go to the GMD system, initial elements of which have been deployed at Fort Greely, Alaska. The defense spending law provides $3 billion for the system. Similarly, the defense authorization measure approves $3.1 billion for the GMD segment, $202 million more than the president’s request. The GMD system consists of 11 interceptors in Alaska and two in California. Those interceptors have been on alert since North Korea began missile test preparations in June.

Congress also was supportive but sparing with funding for the Bush administration’s plans to deploy ground-based interceptors in Europe. The Bush administration has already approached the Czech Republic and Poland about its plans to deploy 10 interceptors in Europe to counter what is perceived as a rising Iranian nuclear threat. The defense appropriations provides $32.8 million for the site and $63 million to begin work on the base’s proposed 10 interceptors, which lawmakers said also could be deployed elsewhere. This amounts to a $23 million cut from the original request. The defense authorization bill provides $33 million for a European interceptor site.

Other missile defense programs thought to have near-term applications also fared well. Both the defense authorization and appropriations laws provide $489 million for the procurement of Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) missiles and $70 million for modifications of existing systems. Both laws also approve $1.1 billion for the Aegis anti-ballistic missile system, $100 million more than the president’s request.

Congress was less favorably disposed toward more ambitious, long-term missile defense programs. For example, the Kinetic Energy Interceptor (KEI) program, which aims to destroy missiles in the early stages of flight, has suffered from a two-year delay in its deployment schedule, and as a result, lawmakers were quick to cut funds for it. The defense spending law cut $48 million from the Bush administration’s $358 million request for the KEI program, which took an even harder hit in the defense authorization law, which authorizes just $245 million.

Plutonium Disposition

Congress refused to authorize the Bush administration’s request for $35 million in funding for a Russian-based facility to dispose of weapons-grade plutonium. The United States and Russia agreed in 2000 to blend 34 metric tons of surplus plutonium each with uranium to provide mixed oxide (MOX) fuel for nuclear power reactors. But the effort has been stalled for several years, and lawmakers said in the report accompanying the defense spending law that they will not subsidize the cost of the Russian disposal facility if the Russians refuse to help pay for it.

The defense authorization measure does provide $264 million to build a U.S.-based MOX facility, but the funds will be withheld until the Energy Department provides an independent cost estimate for construction and also certifies that it plans to use the MOX facility for plutonium disposition, regardless of what occurs with the Russian program.

Cooperative Threat Reduction

Congress reduced funds to help former states in the Soviet Union safely dismantle, secure, and destroy their nuclear arsenals. Both the spending and authorization laws meet the president’s request of $372 million for the Cooperative Threat Reduction program. The total is $44 million less than was included for the program in the fiscal year 2006 defense appropriations bill. The administration claimed, however, that it made up the difference last February by including an additional $44.5 million for the program in a 2006 wartime supplemental spending measure.