Oldthink on New Nuclear Reductions

Daryl G. Kimball

After months of review and debate, a bipartisan Senate majority approved the resolution of ratification for the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) on Dec. 22, 2010.

The 71-26 vote is a step forward for U.S. security. Not only did the vote open the way for long-overdue U.S.-Russian nuclear stockpile reductions and renewed inspections, but the ratification package endorsed a long-term plan for maintaining the existing U.S. nuclear arsenal, called for efforts to reduce the number of tactical nuclear weapons, and reiterated U.S. policy to seek cooperation with Russia on missile defense.

But now, Rep. Michael Turner (R-Ohio) and the leading critic of New START in the Senate, Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), are trying to rewrite New START policies and understandings approved only six months ago.

Turner and Kyl say they simply want to lock in long-term commitments for costly upgrades to the nuclear weapons complex and replacement of strategic nuclear delivery systems and to create “speed bumps” for further nuclear reductions.

In reality, their so-called New START implementation legislation is a poison pill for U.S. nuclear security. If enacted, it effectively would block implementation of New START, halt the retirement of excess weapons, and undercut the authority of the president and senior military leaders to set U.S. nuclear policy requirements.

Each of the main provisions, now being considered as part of the fiscal year 2012 National Defense Authorization Act, is counterproductive and counterintuitive. Turner and Kyl propose halting New START reductions unless the administration’s $185 billion, 10-year plan to modernize the nuclear weapons complex and delivery systems is being carried out.

The New START resolution of ratification already states that “the United States is committed to providing the resources…at the levels set forth in the President’s 10-year plan” and requires the president to report on how any future funding shortfall would be addressed and whether it impacts U.S. security.

The Turner-Kyl approach is based on the erroneous premise that if Congress appropriates even a dollar less than the president requests for National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) weapons activities, the safety, reliability, and effectiveness of the U.S. nuclear arsenal is somehow in doubt.

In fact, the technical strategy for maintaining the effectiveness and reliability of the U.S. nuclear stockpile has been in place for more than a decade. Over that time, the NNSA’s life extension programs have successfully refurbished existing types of nuclear warheads without nuclear test explosions and can continue to do so indefinitely.

Not only do the nuclear weapons laboratories have a deeper understanding of the arsenal than before, they also have more resources than ever. The Obama administration’s $88 billion, 10-year plan to operate the nuclear complex represents a 20 percent increase above funding levels proposed during the Bush administration. Minor cuts and cost savings in the NNSA budget will not change the fact that the weapons activities budget, at $7 billion, provides more than enough to get the job done.

Worse still, the Turner-Kyl legislation would prohibit funding to retire, dismantle, or eliminate any nondeployed nuclear weapons until two new nuclear weapons facilities—the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement facility and the Uranium Processing Facility—are fully operational and can produce components for 80 warheads. These buildings are still in the design phase and are not scheduled to be operational until the mid-2020s.

The bill also would bar reductions below the New START ceilings of 1,550 deployed strategic warheads and 700 nuclear-armed delivery systems without congressional approval. The combined effect of these provisions would be to freeze the size of the current U.S. nuclear force, now at about 5,000 total warheads, and increase maintenance and security costs for the next 10 to 15 years. This would likely induce Russia to maintain a larger nuclear force and complicate the next round of negotiations, which should cover all types of warheads: deployed and nondeployed, strategic and tactical.

The Turner-Kyl legislation also would limit the president’s ability to pursue reductions in tactical nuclear weapons as called for in the New START resolution. Their bill would make it U.S. policy to seek to reduce Russia’s tactical nuclear weapons arsenal, but asserts that U.S. tactical nuclear weapons should continue to be based in Europe to contribute “to the cohesion of NATO.”

This ignores what Joint Chiefs of Staff Vice Chairman Gen. James Cartwright has acknowledged, that the 180 U.S. tactical nuclear bombs stored in Europe do not serve a military function not already addressed by other U.S. military assets. Keeping them in Europe does nothing to protect allies and would make it more difficult to convince Russia to consolidate and reduce its larger tactical nuclear arsenal.

Rather than unravel the bipartisan consensus on nuclear security that was established through the New START ratification process, Congress needs to support, not complicate, pragmatic steps that reduce nuclear dangers.