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Congress Challenges Global Strike Plan
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Miles A. Pomper

Congress is challenging a new Pentagon plan to arm some submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) with conventional warheads. In crafting the fiscal year 2007 defense authorization bill, lawmakers have also made a few other significant changes to plutonium-disposition, missile defense, and nuclear warhead programs proposed by the Bush administration.

The House approved the defense authorization bill May 11 by a 396-31 vote; the Senate Armed Services Committee approved its version May 4. Once the full Senate acts on the bill, which sets broad policy goals and funding ceilings, the two chambers will need to reconcile their versions of the bill before sending a final measure to President George W. Bush. In addition, both chambers later this year must pass a defense appropriations bill to allocate specific funding for programs in the half-trillion-dollar Pentagon budget as well as an energy appropriations bill to allocate funding for the Department of Energy’s nuclear weapons-related programs.

In considering the defense authorization bill in May, both chambers raised questions about the administration’s new Prompt Global Strike plan, which would substitute conventional warheads for some nuclear warheads on 24 Trident D-5 SLBMs.

Under the administration proposal, within two years, two dozen conventionally armed missiles would be dispersed among 12 submarines. That would mean each vessel would carry 22 nuclear-armed and two conventionally armed missiles. The administration has asked for $127 million for the plan for fiscal year 2007, which begins Oct. 1.

Pentagon and administration officials have said that the change is needed to give the military a non-nuclear capability for hitting “fleeting targets” with a high “regret” factor if they are not destroyed. These might include unconventional weapons threats, enemy command and control elements, and terrorists.

But lawmakers have questioned whether submarines with mixed loads might cause confusion for other countries about the type of missile fired and its intended target. In such a circumstance, they worry that a country might conclude that it was under U.S. nuclear attack and potentially retaliate with nuclear weapons. Russian officials, including President Vladimir Putin, have raised similar concerns.

“The launch of such a missile could provoke an inappropriate response from one of the nuclear powers [or] could provoke a full-scale counterattack using strategic nuclear forces,” Putin said in his annual state of the nation address May 10.

In approving the defense authorization measure, the full House largely seconded the judgment of the House Armed Services Committee. That panel cut the administration’s entire $50 million procurement request for the submarine conversion program and well more than half of the related research and development request.

“The committee is concerned that the development of this conventional ballistic missile capability for a submarine that has historically carried nuclear-armed ballistic missiles could cause a missile launch misinterpretation regarding which type of warhead a ballistic missile may be carrying,” the report said.

Although the Senate Armed Services Committee authorized the administration’s $127 million request, the panel prohibited the Navy from using more than $32 million of the funds until the secretaries of defense and state submitted a report to Congress addressing “nuclear ambiguity issues,” according to a committee press release.

The House and Senate panels met the administration’s $27.7 million request for another controversial weapons program: the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) program. But the House Armed Services Committee included language in its report calling for a National Academy of Sciences study of whether a new scientific methodology that would be used to evaluate the program can be relied on. The RRW program would explore new warhead designs to increase the reliability, safety, and security of the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal without the resumption of nuclear testing. The United States has not carried out a nuclear test since 1992.

The House panel also called for the secretaries of energy and defense to outline their plans by Feb. 1 of next year “to transform the nuclear weapons complex so as to achieve a responsive infrastructure.” The Bush administration has called for the creation of such a modernized and expanded infrastructure, saying its creation would allow the United States to quickly meet new demands for nuclear weapons that might arise in the future while maintaining the reliability of the existing stockpile.

The committee suggested that both this effort and the RRW program might obtain enhanced funds in the future if the Pentagon phases out another warhead, the W-80. The program calls on the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration to prepare another plan by Feb. 1 “for redirecting the human resources and facilities” from maintaining the W-80 to the RRW program and transforming the weapons complex.

Missile Defense

Without changing overall missile defense spending significantly, the House and the Senate plans made changes to the administration’s budget request, directing more spending to programs that are operational or closer to realization over longer-term initiatives. The administration requested $11.2 billion for missile defenses in fiscal year 2007, including $9.3 billion for the Missile Defense Agency. (See ACT, March 2006.)

The House overwhelmingly blocked a proposed amendment by Rep. John Tierney (D-Mass.) that would have cut funds for the agency in half. It also would have prohibited the deployment of space-based interceptors and additional deployments of Ground-based

Midcourse Defense (GMD) system interceptors. Only 124 lawmakers voted for the measure, while 301 voted against it.

Instead, lawmakers focused on smaller changes. The Senate panel, for example, added $200 million for flight-testing the GMD system against long-range ballistic missiles. The GMD system has been deployed in Alaska and California. At the same time, it cut $200 million, roughly a 50 percent reduction, from the Kinetic Energy Interceptor (KEI) program, a fast-acceleration land-based interceptor, which aims to shoot down missiles as they ascend. The House called for a $20 million boost for the $2.9 billion GMD program and a $100 million cut from the KEI effort, whose deployment schedule has been delayed from 2012 to 2014.

The Senate panel also added substantial chunks of $100 million each to accelerate improvements to and increase the number of Aegis ship-based Standard Missile-3 interceptors as well as for Army procurement and upgrades of additional Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) missiles. By contrast, the House committee called for increasing the administration’s request by $40 million and $140 million, respectively, for those programs. The administration had requested $1 billion for the Aegis program and had asked for up to $900 million for the PAC-3s.

The House also eliminated $55.8 million the administration had requested for constructing a third GMD interceptor site in Europe and cut $65 million from the $165 million administration request for the Multiple Kill Vehicle Program.

Plutonium Disposition

Both chambers are seeking to move forward with U.S. plans for disposing of weapons-grade plutonium independent of Russian action; the administration request included funds toward a Russian disposal facility. The two nations agreed six years ago to each blend 34 metric tons of surplus plutonium with uranium to provide mixed oxide (MOX) fuel for nuclear power reactors. But the effort has been stalled for several years, and Russia has recently suggested it might abandon its effort and instead dispose of most of the plutonium in a fast-breeder reactor. Such reactors produce additional plutonium, a shift the United States has not supported because of proliferation concerns.

The House approved $174 million for construction of a MOX facility at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina. The administration had asked for nearly $290 million, including $35 million toward a Russian facility.

The Senate panel approved the full construction funds but withheld nearly all of the money for the U.S. and Russian projects until 30 days after the Energy Department files two reports. For the U.S. funds to proceed, the Energy Department would have to provide an independent cost estimate for construction and certify that it planned to use the MOX facility for plutonium disposition, regardless of what occurs with the Russian program. For the Russian funds to move forward, the department would have to address concerns such as the method of disposing plutonium, the schedule for doing so, and how this would correspond with the U.S. effort.

 

Posted: June 1, 2006