Daryl G. Kimball

President Barack Obama, backed by the U.S. military, bipartisan national security leaders, and America’s NATO allies, has made a strong case for approval of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) before the end of this year. New START would reduce Russia’s still enormous nuclear arsenal, re-establish effective bilateral inspection and monitoring, and further enhance U.S.-Russian cooperation on key issues, including containing Iran's nuclear program and further reducing all types of Russian and U.S. nuclear arms.

As Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) has argued, “Every senator has an obligation in the national security interest to take a stand, to do his or her duty.”

There is no excuse for inaction. Since it was signed on April 8, the treaty has been thoroughly vetted. The Senate has held more than 20 hearings and briefings; more than 900 questions have been asked and answered. Pushing the treaty’s consideration into 2011 would undermine U.S. nonproliferation leadership and jeopardize relations with Russia at a critical juncture.

Yet, many Republican senators say they need more time to decide. They are led by Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (Ariz.), who continues to stall progress on New START in an apparent attempt to secure even more funding for the already well-funded U.S. nuclear weapons production infrastructure.

The administration requested $7 billion for the weapons complex in fiscal year 2011, an amount that is about 10 percent higher than it was in the final year of the Bush administration. Linton Brooks, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) head under President George W. Bush, said in April, “I’d have killed for that budget and that much high-level attention in the administration.”

Then, in May the administration outlined its $80 billion, 10-year plan for the NNSA nuclear weapons complex, which is almost 15 percent higher than current spending levels.

On Aug. 4, Kyl told Reuters he would hold up New START unless appropriations bills passed by Congress for fiscal year 2011 and the president’s budget for fiscal year 2012 reflect the administration’s plan for modernizing the nuclear weapons complex. Acknowledging that it would be difficult to get everything done before the November election, Kyl said the Senate might need a postelection session if it wanted to vote on the treaty this year.

The administration has addressed Kyl’s demands and gone beyond them. So far, Congress has approved the administration’s fiscal year 2011 budget request for NNSA weapons activities. Then, on Nov. 17 the Obama administration delivered revised estimates for funding the nuclear weapons complex over the next decade. The plan now totals a whopping $85 billion, including an additional $4.1 billion in spending for fiscal years 2012-2016, mainly to cover possible cost increases for two new facilities. That would represent a 21 percent rise above the proposed fiscal year 2011 funding level for NNSA weapons activities.

Unfortunately, it seems that Kyl cannot take “yes” for an answer. In a Nov. 27 letter to their fellow Republicans, Kyl and Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) complained that it will be several years before the United States would be able to completely remanufacture its nuclear stockpile with new and modernized facilities. They make the absurd claim that further reductions in the active U.S. stockpile are imprudent until and unless such a capability is re-established. Before New START can be considered, they say, the administration should accelerate funding for the new facilities in New Mexico and Corker’s home state of Tennessee.

That contradicts the views of U.S. military leaders and the directors of the U.S. nuclear weapons laboratories. They do not believe that the modest reductions called for under New START must wait until the United States can remanufacture hundreds of new warheads as a “hedge” against a resurgent Russia or the highly unlikely possibility that some warheads in the arsenal require a fix through a more extensive life-extension program.

In reality, the current program for refurbishing existing warheads is working extremely well. Obama’s original $80 billion plan for the weapons complex provided more than enough to maintain the existing stockpile over the next decade. If future Congresses believe that funding increases are warranted, they can consider appropriating more money at the appropriate time.

Further attempts by Kyl to delay Senate consideration of New START in order to “earmark” still more funding for the weapons labs is fiscally irresponsible, politically unsustainable, and damaging to U.S. security.

“Waiting until next year would require a new set of hearings and lots more time,” Lugar told Louisville’s Courier-Journal Nov. 28. Such a course, he said, “borders on the irresponsible in terms of national security.”

As Obama noted in his Nov. 20 weekly radio address, “Some things are bigger than politics. Senator Lugar is right, and if the Senate passes this treaty, it will not be an achievement for Democrats or Republicans—it will be a win for America.”