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Hill Adjusts Bush’s Proposed Military Spending

Wade Boese

As lawmakers rushed to leave Washington before November’s general elections, they passed two bills setting new Pentagon spending policies and totals for fiscal year 2009, which began Oct. 1. They also extended the previous fiscal year’s funding levels for the U.S. nuclear weapons complex. Those legislative moves shifted and reduced expenditures for anti-missile programs, cut spending for non-nuclear global strike weapons, and denied funding for a controversial program to research a new generation of nuclear warheads. Congress also ordered a series of reports on issues ranging from the status of Iran’s nuclear weapons capabilities to U.S. space policy.

On Sept. 30, President George W. Bush signed into law the Consolidated Security, Disaster Assistance, and Continuing Appropriations Act of 2009. That measure includes $487.7 billion in spending for the Department of Defense, but does not finance the ongoing military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, which have been sustained through supplemental appropriations bills. Congress, however, approved up to $68.6 billion in new funding for the two wars in the fiscal year 2009 defense authorization act signed Oct. 14 by Bush. Authorization bills establish spending ceilings and legislative guidelines for programs, while appropriations bills dole out specific funds.

The Defense Department was one of a few agencies for which Congress approved fresh fiscal year 2009 appropriations. For most agencies, including the Department of Energy and its semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), which manages the nuclear weapons enterprise, legislators opted to maintain fiscal year 2008 spending rates through March 6, 2009. Democratic congressional leaders apparently calculated that delaying final fiscal year 2009 budgeting decisions until after the election could work to their advantage because Democratic candidates might win more seats in both chambers of Congress as well as the presidency, giving the party greater leverage to enact its budget priorities instead of those of an outgoing president.

Anti-Missile Projects Trimmed, Tweaked

Bush indicated in May 2000 that deploying anti-missile systems ranked high on his agenda (see ACT, June 2000), and his administration has doggedly pursued such weapons. Beginning with the fiscal year 2002 budget request, the administration has requested $67.2 billion for the Missile Defense Agency (MDA). In contrast, the Clinton administration sought $26.7 billion in total funding for the MDA’s predecessor.

Congress, under Republican control for much of Bush’s two terms, generally fulfilled his missile defense budget requests and, despite shifting in November 2006 to Democratic management, largely did so again in September. Lawmakers granted approximately $9 billion in fiscal year 2009 appropriations to the MDA, a pruning of some $320 million from the initial request. (See ACT, March 2008.)

The modest cut, however, belies some avid opposition within Congress toward current missile defense programs. Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-Calif.), chair of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, argued in a Sept. 12 speech that, “for eight years, the Bush administration has asked Congress to fund unproven science projects to create a layered missile defense system.”

Reflecting such discontent, the defense authorization act mandates that the secretary of defense review U.S. missile defense policy and strategy and submit a report by Jan. 31, 2010. Moreover, Congress directed the Pentagon’s weapons testing agency to enhance its annual reports on fielded and tested systems with assessments on their “operational effectiveness, suitability, and survivability.”

Legislators also redistributed appropriations away from programs perceived as less mature or too futuristic. For example, Congress zeroed out the administration’s $10 million request to experiment with interceptors stationed in orbit. Lawmakers, however, appropriated $5 million to study space-based interceptor concepts. Although Congress did not approve the study in the authorization bill, Rick Lehner, an MDA spokesperson, e-mailed Arms Control Today Oct. 16 that the agency considers the study money to be “available.”

Another space-related anti-missile program that took a hit from Congress was the Space Tracking and Surveillance System, a constellation of satellites intended to gather more precise tracking data on missiles in flight. Congress reduced the administration’s request by $32.8 million to $209.6 million, asserting the system’s initial capabilities must be more rigorously assessed before moving ahead on any of the follow-on technologies that the MDA had proposed.

Similarly, Congress cut funding for the Airborne Laser (ABL), which remains untested against a missile in flight after a dozen years of research and development. The Clinton administration envisioned an inaugural 2003 intercept attempt by the ABL, a modified Boeing 747 aircraft armed with a laser, but that experiment is currently scheduled for next year. With the long delay and uncertainty about whether the ABL might work, Congress rejected putting $15.8 million toward a second ABL aircraft and shifted $3.3 million to other testing activities, leaving the program with $402 million in fiscal year 2009 funding.

In the authorization bill, Congress further prohibited any future funds from being used to procure additional ABL planes until two reports on the system are completed. One study by the Pentagon’s weapons testing agency will focus exclusively on the ABL system and is supposed to be finished by Jan. 15, 2010. Based on that report, the secretary of defense is to certify to Congress whether the system can work and if it is sustainable and affordable.

The National Academy of Sciences is to carry out a broader study into the feasibility and practicality of the ABL system, as well as other boost-phase defenses, such as the Kinetic Energy Interceptor (KEI), a fast-accelerating, land-based weapon. Boost-phase defenses are designed to destroy missiles shortly after their launch. The academy’s study is to be concluded before Oct. 31, 2010. Although often cut by Congress, the KEI budget request survived the appropriations process unscathed at $386.8 million.

Lawmakers, however, carved up some other projects. They lopped off $112 million from the MDA’s proposed $288 million special programs budget and sliced $70 million from the roughly $354 million Multiple Kill Vehicle (MKV) program request. That latter effort aims to shrink the size of a kill vehicle, the component of some U.S. anti-missile systems that detaches from an interceptor to seek out and collide with a target. The program’s purpose is to increase the targets that a single interceptor may potentially destroy by carrying several kill vehicles. In a statement on their appropriations decisions, lawmakers described the MKV effort, as well as the ABL and space-based test bed projects, as “far-term programs.”

An urgent initiative from the administration’s perspective is the proposed deployment of 10 long-range missile interceptors to Poland and a missile tracking radar to the Czech Republic to protect against growing Iranian missile capabilities. Congress, however, reduced funding for the plan by roughly one-third to $467 million and barred construction or procurement of equipment for the two U.S. sites until the Czech and Polish parliaments approve basing agreements negotiated with the United States. A Czech diplomatic source Oct. 14 told Arms Control Today that a vote there is not expected until November or December, while a Polish official said the next day that it remains unclear when a vote might happen in Poland.

The defense authorization act also prohibits the acquisition or deployment of the 10 interceptors to Poland until they are certified by the secretary of defense as passing “operationally realistic flight testing.” The interceptor, a two-stage variant of the approximately two dozen three-stage U.S. interceptors deployed in Alaska and California, is supposed to be flight-tested for the first time next year and then tested twice in 2010 against targets.

Congress and its government investigative agency have knocked the MDA’s testing programs, including its ability to build credible targets. Rep. Terry Everett (R-Ala.), the ranking member on the subcommittee led by Tauscher, said Sept. 23 that he had concerns about the MDA’s “performance in its missile defense testing and targets program.” In addition, the joint explanatory statement accompanying the appropriations bill noted that the MDA “has established a pattern of cost, schedule and performance problems.”

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report in September that found the MDA has “difficulty” in providing and developing targets and that target failures and anomalies have increased since 2006. As a result, the GAO contended there have been delays in “validating” the long-range interceptor system deployed in the United States, the ground-based midcourse defense (GMD). After canceling a GMD test in May, the MDA is planning this December to conduct its first intercept test of the system since September 2007. To date, the GMD has recorded seven hits in 12 intercept tests, although the GAO has described the experiments as “developmental.”

The GAO also reported that target problems have inhibited flight testing of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), which is supposed to destroy short- to intermediate-range missiles as they near the end of their flights. The MDA recently aborted a Sept. 17 THAAD intercept test when the target malfunctioned.

Aiming to improve the MDA’s testing and target development, Congress transferred more than $200 million to those activities from other anti-missile endeavors and provided an additional $32 million for stockpiling new targets. Those moves boosted total funding for testing and target programs to $914.8 million.

Still, lawmakers maintain that the MDA’s “highest priority” should be the acquisition of THAAD and ship-based Aegis Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) interceptors to meet military calls to nearly double the MDA’s planned 2013 inventory of 147 SM-3 and 96 THAAD interceptors. To underscore its support for procuring those systems, Congress moved $57 million from Aegis system research and $65 million from THAAD research to production of both systems. In sum, lawmakers granted approximately $970 million to THAAD and $1.17 billion to the Aegis program, which is designed to counter shorter-range missiles. The sole project topping the Aegis and THAAD programs in funding is the GMD system at $1.5 billion. All told, Congress added $120 million to the Aegis, GMD, and THAAD programs above administration requests.

Status Quo for Nuclear Weapons Funding

Congress did not pass an energy and water appropriations bill, the measure that provides money to the NNSA and the nuclear weapons complex. Instead, lawmakers passed a continuing resolution that perpetuates through early March fiscal year 2008 spending levels on nuclear weapons activities. That spending totaled $6.3 billion from Oct. 1, 2007, to Sept. 30, 2008. (See ACT, January/February 2008.)

A key consequence of the congressional action was that it stifled the Bush administration’s attempt to revive the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) program, which involves research into a new warhead design. Because Congress zeroed out fiscal year 2008 funding for the effort, there is no financing available for it under the continuing resolution. In addition, the defense authorization act and the defense appropriations measure proscribe spending on the program.

Last February, the NNSA sought $10 million in specific RRW funding and another $30 million for affiliated activities as part of the proposed fiscal year 2009 budget. (See ACT, March 2008.) The Navy also requested $23 million for work related to the program. Advocates say it will lead to a safer and more reliable generation of nuclear warheads and permit deeper cuts to the estimated U.S. stockpile of roughly 5,400 warheads. Critics contend that existing warheads are secure and viable and that the RRW program is risky and provocative. The two sides dispute whether the RRW program will lessen or spark a return to nuclear testing, suspended in 1992 by the United States.

RRW prospects appeared dim earlier this year. The appropriations committees in both congressional chambers eliminated funding for the project in their separate preliminary versions of the energy and water appropriations bill. In a June report on its draft, the House committee noted it “strongly supports improved surety” for warheads and “supports trading off Cold War high yield for improved reliability, in order to move to a smaller stockpile…with no need for nuclear testing,” but the committee added that it “remains to be convinced that a new warhead design will lead to these benefits.”

Rather than making new warheads, lawmakers showed a preference for getting rid of older warheads. The defense authorization act approves $5 million more than the administration’s original $64.7 million request for dismantling retired warheads. Furthermore, the two preliminary versions of the energy and water appropriations bill had postulated increases of nearly $6 million and $22 million.

The NNSA asserts it is making progress on dismantlement work, recently claiming a rise in the number of warheads taken apart for the second consecutive year. In an Oct. 1 press release, the agency stated that dismantlements had increased by 20 percent over the fiscal year 2007 total, which had exceeded the previous year’s tally by 146 percent. (See ACT, November 2007.) The actual number of warheads disassembled annually has been classified since 1999, although outside experts and reports say that prior to the recent upswing, the pace had dwindled to less than 100 warheads on Bush’s watch. (See ACT, October 2007.)

The NNSA attributes the rise in dismantled warheads to “more efficient processes and techniques.” An NNSA spokesperson told Arms Control Today Oct. 16 that the current projection for when the agency will complete all scheduled dismantlements is 2022.

Prompt Global Strike Remains Controversial

As U.S. nuclear forces decrease, the Bush administration has urged the development of longer-range conventional weapons capable of hitting targets worldwide in less than an hour. But some lawmakers have resisted, primarily citing concerns that the use of such systems might cause Russia to mistakenly conclude it was under nuclear attack and launch a retaliatory blow.

Given those reservations, Congress last year barred the administration from proceeding with its preferred option of substituting conventional warheads on two dozen nuclear-armed submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs). But lawmakers provided $100 million for the Pentagon to explore other so-called prompt global strike options. In its budget request earlier this year, the administration sought a slight increase for those efforts to $117 million.

Although Congress seemed receptive to that request in its authorization bill, adding $3 million, legislators cut $43 million in the appropriations measure. In addition, they ordered the secretary of defense, in consultation with the secretary of state, to conduct a review of the various prompt global strike concepts and supply a final report to lawmakers by Sept. 1, 2009. Among other issues, the study is to delve into misinterpretation risks, potential targets, and the intelligence necessary to support potential use.

The report marks the second evaluation of prompt global strike options requested by Congress. In August, an agency of the National Academy of Sciences delivered a report supporting both the general concept and the administration’s initial SLBM conversion proposal. (See ACT, September 2008.)

Other Reports

Lawmakers also demanded reports on a range of other subjects. Congress tasked the director of national intelligence and the secretary of defense to produce a joint report on the U.S. outer space posture. Due by Dec. 1, 2009, the report is supposed to include policies, requirements, and objectives for attaining, among other things, space control and superiority. The study also is supposed to assess the effect of U.S. space policies on decisions by foreign states to pursue space-based arms or weapons for attacking objects in space.

Although the intelligence community has provided previous reports on Iran’s weapons activities, including a National Intelligence Estimate last year (see ACT, January/February 2008), Congress ordered the director of national intelligence to produce in six months the inaugural version of a new annual report on Iran’s capability to make nuclear weapons. In addition, the president is to inform Congress within 15 days of any determination that Iran “has resumed a nuclear weapons program” or “surpassed any major milestone in its nuclear weapons program.”

Beyond Iran, Congress ordered a presidential report surveying all nuclear weapons holdings worldwide, including exact types, yields, and delivery mechanisms maintained by each possessor when possible. The report, due in one year, is to offer recommendations for securing, monitoring, reducing, and disposing of the weapons.

Along similar lines, the secretary of energy is to develop a plan for establishing an international nuclear materials database and improving U.S. nuclear forensics capabilities. Such steps are seen by many analysts as a way to get states to exercise tighter control over their nuclear materials and dissuade transfers to terrorists because of concern that any leaked material could be traced to its origin, raising the stakes of possible punitive actions. (See ACT, July/August 2008.)

Finally, lawmakers waived a Dec. 1 deadline for a report commissioned last year to provide recommendations on how many nuclear weapons the United States should maintain and their missions. The 12-member commission, chaired by former Secretary of Defense William Perry, is to deliver its final report by April 1, 2009.