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Hill Reviews Defense Policies; Nixes Warhead
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Wade Boese

In a trio of bills passed recently, the Democratic-controlled Congress ordered several reviews of key Bush administration defense and nuclear policies, setting the stage for possible future course changes. Lawmakers also dealt a more immediate reversal to administration plans by nearly eliminating all funding for a new nuclear warhead.

The reviews of nuclear weapons, missile defense, space, and prompt global strike policies are part of the fiscal year 2008 defense authorization, defense appropriations, and omnibus appropriations bills, all of which Congress passed in November and December. The authorization bill sets legislative guidelines, while the two appropriations bills grant money to the Pentagon and the nuclear weapons complex operated by the Department of Energy’s semi-autonomous National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA). Fiscal year 2008 started Oct. 1 and runs until Sept. 30, 2008.

President George W. Bush signed into law the $459.3 billion defense appropriations measure Nov. 13 and the $515.7 billion omnibus spending bill Dec. 26. The latter legislation includes $6.3 billion for nuclear weapons activities, which is $214 million less than the administration’s original request. (See ACT, March 2007. )

Two days after Bush signed the omnibus act, the White House announced he would veto the defense authorization bill due to a provision that the administration claims would economically punish the current Iraqi government for offenses committed under Saddam Hussein’s rule. Under the provision, U.S. citizens, military personnel, and government contract employees would be able to seek monetary compensation for personal injury or death from countries that the Department of State has designated as state sponsors of terrorism, such as Hussein’s regime. Although the statement noted administration objections to “many provisions” in the bill, the White House asserted Bush would sign a revised bill with “modifications” to only the Iraq provision.

Policy Pre-empts Hardware; New Warhead Loses Out

Arguably the most significant nuclear weapons spending cut in the two appropriation acts was the elimination of NNSA funding for the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) program. The program aimed to construct new simplified warheads that would be easier to make and maintain. In addition, the models would supposedly be less susceptible to accidental or unauthorized use and more likely to perform optimally than current warheads.

The NNSA annually has found existing warheads to be “safe and reliable” and is working to extend their service lives by replacing aging components and materials as part of the Stockpile Stewardship Program. RRW proponents argue that such accumulated changes might diminish future warhead performance.

The administration claimed that proving RRW warheads would not require rescinding a 1992 nuclear testing moratorium, but in August an independent group of scientists questioned that assumption. (See ACT, November 2007. )

Still, the Bush administration had touted the initiative as integral to its plan to transform the nuclear weapons complex and stockpile (see page 38) by shifting from a strategy of maintaining the existing stockpile and storing extra warheads for emergencies to relying on a retooled bomb enterprise to produce new replacement warheads or build up the arsenal on an as-needed basis.

In its February budget request for the 2008 fiscal year, the NNSA sought nearly $89 million to continue research on the RRW program. The Navy also asked for $30 million to support the 2004 initiative because the first RRW model was slated to replace W76 warheads arming U.S. submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs). Completed first, the defense appropriations act cut the Navy request in half to $15 million and restricted that spending to design and cost studies, but lawmakers in the subsequent omnibus act denied all funding to the core project run by the NNSA.

A congressional staffer familiar with the cut told Arms Control Today Dec. 18 that it resulted from key lawmakers’ discomfort with the agency’s “production mentality” toward the project. Rep. Peter Visclosky (D-Ind.), chairman of the House appropriations subcommittee that oversees NNSA funding, and the top Republican on that panel, David Hobson (Ohio), have repeatedly said that before manufacturing additional warheads, the United States should review its long-term nuclear strategy.

Toward that end, the defense authorization bill mandates establishment of a congressionally appointed, 12-member commission to provide a report by Dec. 1, 2008, on “the most appropriate strategic posture and most effective nuclear weapons strategy.” Among other things, the $5 million study is to recommend the necessary number of nuclear weapons and the composition of the nuclear complex. Some factors that are to be taken into account by the commission members, one-half of whom will be appointed by Democrats and one-half by Republicans, include how nonproliferation and missile defense programs mesh with the proposed strategy.

The authorization bill also requires the Pentagon, consulting with the Energy and State Departments, to conduct a separate “comprehensive review” of U.S. nuclear posture for the next five to 10 years. Lawmakers ordered the posture review to be delivered in 2009 with the Pentagon’s next Quadrennial Defense Review, which maps out the department’s thinking about how to structure forces and weapons for the future.

Officials from the Departments of Defense and Energy also must supply Congress with a classified report on their handling and storage procedures for nuclear weapons and components. Prompted by an unauthorized Air Force transport of six nuclear-armed cruise missiles from North Dakota to Louisiana last August (see ACT, November 2007 ), that report is due in February.

In addition, the NNSA by March 1 is supposed to provide Congress with a report detailing nuclear warhead dismantlement work, including the feasibility of accelerating the tempo. The agency claimed a faster dismantlement pace in 2007 than in recent years, which an NNSA spokesperson told Arms Control Today might enable completion of all planned dismantlements prior to the previously projected finish date of 2023. (See ACT, November 2007. )

Congress is nudging the NNSA to expand its dismantlement capability. For example, lawmakers approved a $14.8 million project to upgrade the Device Assembly Facility at the Nevada nuclear testing site and the proposed $69.3 million Pit Disassembly and Conversion Facility and moved them to be part of the dismantlement budget, suggesting those facilities should play a role in taking apart retired warheads. All dismantlement work is currently done at the same site, the Pantex plant in Amarillo, Texas, where warhead life extensions are conducted and receive priority.

In contrast, Congress rejected the administration’s request of almost $25 million for a new consolidated plutonium center, which among other objectives was supposed to enhance pit production capabilities. The pit is a warhead’s core component that drives the nuclear explosion.

All told, the congressional staffer interviewed Dec. 18 said the recent legislation makes clear that Congress wants a “reassessment” of the role and “overall purpose” of nuclear weapons in U.S. security strategy before spending billions of dollars on new weapons and facilities.

Congress is reluctant, however, to part with some old weaponry. In the defense authorization bill, lawmakers blocked Air Force moves to shrink the force of B-52 bombers from 94 planes to 56 and to trim the 500-missile ICBM fleet by 50. The bill requires the service to retain 76 bombers and forbids the retirement of more than 40 ICBMs until 15 days after submission of a report assessing additional missions for the Montana base where the missiles are located.

Whither the Missile Defense Agency?

The defense appropriations act only shaves roughly $185 million total from the Missile Defense Agency’s (MDA) original $8.8 billion budget request, but those cuts include funding for the Bush administration’s priority project to start construction on strategic missile interceptor sites in Europe (see page 47 ). And, in a move with potentially greater future implications for missile defense as a whole, lawmakers ordered a review of the MDA, including whether it should keep its “current configuration” and “scope and nature.”

The review is to be conducted by a federally funded research and development center, such as the Institute for Defense Analyses or National Defense Research Institute, and submitted to lawmakers by Sept. 1, 2008. The timing of the review, according to a congressional staffer interviewed Dec. 17 by Arms Control Today, is to “frame” the issue of missile defense for the next administration.

One concern behind the review, the staffer said, is that the agency has remained involved with deployed systems when its mission is to serve as a research and development organization. Military services, such as the Army or Navy, traditionally are supposed to take over operation and procurement of weapons once they are developed, but that generally has not been the practice with missile defense systems, except for the ground-launched, short- and medium-range Patriot system. The staffer described the MDA as “too big and out of its lane,” meaning that the agency is doing more than it should.

MDA spokesperson Rick Lehner said in an e-mail to Arms Control Today Dec. 30 that the agency is “confident the review will reach the conclusion that [the] MDA has done everything it has been tasked to do by Congress and the Defense Department.”

Some lawmakers, however, contend that the MDA has too much freedom to use research and development funding for fielding systems without establishing sufficient criteria for evaluating them. Seeking to redress this alleged shortcoming, the defense authorization bill requires the MDA to create a plan by March 1 to transition away from relying almost exclusively on research and development funding. The agency also is supposed to institute by the next budget request more “acquisition cost, schedule, and performance baselines” for separate systems.

In a Dec. 6 report on the defense authorization bill, Congress reiterated past advice that the agency concentrate more on near-term rather than futuristic systems and technologies. In that vein, lawmakers refused in the defense appropriations act to dole out the requested $10 million for a test bed to experiment with space-based interceptors and nearly $63 million for equipping the ship-based short- and medium-range Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense system with multiple kill vehicles. However, Congress endorsed developing such kill vehicles, which are the components that maneuver to collide with enemy warheads, for the long-range Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) and the nascent Kinetic Energy Interceptor (KEI) program.

Twenty-one GMD interceptors have been deployed in Alaska, as well as three in California, and each one carries only a single kill vehicle. Congress is capping the Alaska base to 40 total interceptors until the system “has demonstrated, through operationally realistic end-to-end flight testing, that it has a high probability of working.”

The system, designed to strike warheads as they pass through space, has posted a record of seven intercepts in a dozen experiments, but some in Congress have questioned how realistic the tests have been. Indeed, lawmakers criticized the MDA in general for failing to “ensure an adequate testing program.” They granted the agency an additional $80 million to improve its testing activities.

Another system that has yet to conduct an intercept trial appears to be losing favor with legislators. Although Congress only denied $35 million of the administration’s almost $549 million request for the Airborne Laser (ABL), a modified, laser-armed Boeing 747, lawmakers also deemed it a “high risk.” They noted that cost estimates for the system through 2009, the year of its first projected experiment, had quintupled to $5.1 billion.

Perhaps reflecting the growing unease with the ABL, Congress boosted funding for the KEI program by $120 million above the initial $227.5 million request. This project has the same objective of the ABL, destroying a missile as it is still ascending, but is based on development of a high-speed interceptor that would release a kill vehicle to ram the target.

MDA programs that did not fare as well as the KEI program include its classified “special programs,” which took a $125 million cut to $198 million. Similarly, the Space Tracking and Surveillance System (STSS), a satellite system intended to provide more precise tracking of warheads and any surrounding objects in flight, suffered a $98 million trim to $233 million.

Space Rises on Congressional Agenda

Notwithstanding cuts to the STSS and a few other long-term satellite programs, the recent measures reveal an increased congressional interest in space matters. That development is in large part a reaction to China’s first successful demonstration of an anti-satellite capability last January. (See ACT, March 2007. )

Referring to that incident, lawmakers ordered the secretary of defense to work with the director of national intelligence in preparing a Space Protection Strategy to help ensure U.S. “freedom of action in space.” The strategy is supposed to assess potential threats to U.S. space assets and activities over five-year increments through 2025 and identify potential capabilities, tactics, and procedures to mitigate those dangers. The first report on the strategy, which is part of the defense authorization bill, is due six months after the legislation becomes law. Follow-up reports are supposed to occur every two years.

To help improve U.S. capabilities to track other states’ space activities, the defense appropriations act devotes more than $100 million to enhancing “space situational awareness.” In addition, lawmakers stressed developing “operationally responsive space” capabilities to replace or reconstitute lost assets quickly.

As part of that effort, Congress highlighted the Falcon program run by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. One element of that program entails developing a small launch vehicle to put objects into space relatively cheaply and quickly. Another Falcon program goal is designing a reusable hypersonic cruise vehicle that can deliver payloads from the United States to locations 14,000 kilometers away within two hours. Although lawmakers a few years ago restricted Falcon and a similar program known as Common Aero Vehicle (CAV) to missions not associated with delivering weapons (see ACT, September 2004 ), legislators in their recent bills dropped that prohibition with respect to a successor program to the CAV project.

Prompt Global Strike Lives On

The defense appropriations act merges the Air Force’s CAV program with a Navy program to replace nuclear warheads with conventional munitions on some Trident SLBMs into a new $100 million project under the direction of the undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology, and logistics. That consolidated Prompt Global Strike program will investigate various technologies, such as propulsion and guidance systems and re-entry vehicle designs, to enable the U.S. military to carry out non-nuclear strikes worldwide in less than an hour.

The Navy program had envisioned submarines carrying both conventional- and nuclear-armed Trident SLBMs, raising concerns among some lawmakers that Russia could mistake the launch of a non-nuclear missile to be a U.S. nuclear attack, triggering Moscow to unleash a nuclear response. The defense appropriation act bars spending on testing or fielding a conventional Trident, and legislators noted in the Dec. 6 defense authorization bill statement that they “remained concerned” about any concept employing a “mixed loading” arrangement. Still, they emphasized the “value” in “developing prompt global strike capabilities that may be needed for time-sensitive operations.”

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Downsizing the U.S. Nuclear Stockpile

The Bush administration announced in December that it had cut the U.S. nuclear stockpile by nearly one-half of what it had been in 2001 and that this reduced stockpile would shrink another 15 percent before 2012.

The number of warheads in the stockpile is classified. Independent estimates over the past several years have generally posited a stockpile of approximately 10,000 warheads. Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists and Robert Norris of the Natural Resources Defense Council, nongovernmental analysts who have spent much of their careers in nuclear bean-counting, have estimated that the stockpile stood at roughly 10,500 warheads in 2001. Before the latest announcement, they estimated it had contracted to about 9,900 warheads.

In June 2004, the Bush administration first announced its intention to reduce the stockpile almost in half by 2012. (See ACT, July/August 2004.) That translated into an estimated cut of not more than 5,250 warheads. Following that announcement, Kristensen and Norris calculated that the cut eventually would yield a stockpile of roughly 5,400 warheads. The additional 15 percent trim announced in December would mean a further cut of about 800 warheads leading to a stockpile of approximately 4,600 warheads in 2012.

The administration’s announcement of the completed stockpile cut does not imply that the United States physically has eliminated several thousand warheads. Rather, the recently cut warheads have been “retired” from the stockpile. By definition, warheads classified as retired are no longer counted as part of the stockpile.

Retired warheads are stored at Department of Defense depots until the Department of Energy’s semi-autonomous National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) can take control of them. They are then shipped to the Pantex plant in Amarillo, Texas, to be dismantled. The dismantlement queue currently extends to the year 2023.

Retired warheads are not physically modified from their previous state until they are dismantled. The NNSA, however, does not perform maintenance on retired warheads. Moreover, an NNSA official informed Arms Control Today Jan. 3 that a “retired weapon has never been put back into the stockpile.”

Those weapons that are in the stockpile include active and inactive warheads. Active warheads range from those classified as “operationally deployed,” meaning those outfitted on or ready for use by delivery vehicles, to spares. Inactive warheads are systems less primed for use that lack limited-life components. (See ACT, October 2004.)

In a July 2007 report to Congress, the administration reported that as of the end of 2006, the United States fielded 3,696 operationally deployed warheads. Under the 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty, that total is supposed to shrink to no more than 2,200 warheads by 2012, although it can rise again after that year because that is when the accord expires.

Posted: January 25, 2008