GOP Raps Obama on Nuclear Budget

Tom Z. Collina

Leading congressional Republicans are threatening to block implementation of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) in response to what they say is a failure by the Obama administration to request adequate funding for the modernization of U.S. nuclear forces.

Modernization funding was a key element of the Senate’s consideration of New START in late 2010.

President Barack Obama’s fiscal year 2013 request for modernization monies was below the levels his administration had pledged during that debate. The Republican critics say the lower request breaks the 2010 commitment, but administration officials and allies have countered that Obama is meeting his commitments to the Senate and that budget cuts are reasonable given the bipartisan deficit reduction deal that Congress approved last year.

The Senate Republican Policy Committee wrote in a March 12 position paper that Obama “broke his promise by significantly underfunding nuclear modernization.”

In the House, eight Republicans, including Rep. Michael Turner (R-Ohio), chairman of the House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee, introduced legislation on March 8 that could block the implementation of New START. The bill, H.R. 4178, would deny funding for the reduction of deployed nuclear weapons until Obama certifies that U.S. nuclear modernization is being funded as outlined in a document known as the “1251 report.”

That report, required by section 1251 of the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2010, was completed in May 2010 and updated in November 2010. The second version updated the administration’s plans for modernizing the U.S. triad of nuclear-armed missiles, bombers, and submarines, as well as for upgrading the nuclear weapons production infrastructure. According to the March 12 Republican critique, the 1251 report was “essential” to convincing wavering senators to vote for New START. The Senate voted 71-26 to approve the New START Resolution of Advice and Consent on Dec. 22, 2010, after months of hearings and debate. (See ACT, January/February 2011.)

The administration’s defenders have responded by noting that any promises made in 2010 came before Congress agreed to the 2011 Budget Control Act, which is forcing both sides to re-examine funding priorities and commitments. For example, the Pentagon is now planning to reduce budget growth by $487 billion over the next decade, and this cut may double if the current law requiring sequestration is not changed before next January.

Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) said at a March 14 hearing of the Senate Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee that falling short of a budget target derived in 2010 “is reasonable given the fiscal reality facing us today.”

Presidential Promises

The 1251 report describes general plans for “sustaining and modernizing” strategic delivery systems, including construction of a new fleet of submarines to replace the current Ohio-class fleet; an initial analysis of when to build a new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) and of what type; construction of a new heavy bomber; and an initial analysis of when to build a new air-launched cruise missile (ALCM). The report does not specify how many of each system the Pentagon would build, but it does state that more than $100 billion would be spent on nuclear delivery systems over the next decade.

The 1251 report’s section on the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), a semiautonomous unit of the Department of Energy responsible for maintaining nuclear warheads and production facilities, is more detailed. It specifies planned projects and budgets through 2020, including the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Facility Replacement (CMRR) building at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and the Uranium Processing Facility (UPF) at the Y-12 National Security Complex in Tennessee. The report lays out plans to request more than $85 billion for NNSA weapons activities over the next decade and, specifically, $7.9 billion for fiscal 2013.

The New START resolution contains a nonbinding “sense of the Senate” section that says that the United States is committed to providing the resources needed to maintain the NNSA weapons production complex at the levels set forth in the 1251 report. Under the terms of the resolution, if Congress does not provide this level of resources, the president must submit a report on how to address the resource shortfall, among other things, and whether “it remains in the national interest of the United States to remain a Party to the New START Treaty.”

According to congressional staff, the administration was required to submit this report at the end of February, but as of March 28, had not done so.

Finally, as required by the Senate resolution, Obama certified to the Senate on Feb. 2, 2011, that he would “modernize or replace the triad of strategic nuclear delivery systems,” including a heavy bomber and ALCM, an ICBM, and a submarine and submarine-launched ballistic missile, without specifying funding levels, numbers of systems, or production schedules.

Obama also certified that he would “accelerate, to the extent possible, the design and engineering phase” of the CMRR and UPF and request full funding for these facilities on completion of that phase, which has yet to occur.

NNSA the Focus

The charges that Obama broke his promises tend to focus on the NNSA budget, where his commitments were more specific.

The NNSA’s fiscal year 2013 request for weapons activities is $7.6 billion, an increase of $363 million, or 5 percent, above fiscal 2012 but $300 million less than projected in the 1251 report. Although the administration committed in 2011 to fund the CMRR and UPF “to the extent possible,” the fiscal year 2013 budget request contains no construction funding for the CMRR and defers work for at least five years. The House Appropriations energy and water subcommittee cut the CMRR by $100 million, or 33 percent, as part of the fiscal year 2012 appropriations process, indicating bipartisan concern about the need for that facility. Meanwhile, the UPF in Tennessee would be funded at $340 million in fiscal year 2013, a $180 million increase over 2012.

At the March 14 hearing, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), who did not vote for New START, said that the CMRR delay means that the NNSA would not be able to meet a Department of Defense requirement to “manufacture between 50 and 80 pits per year” and “recklessly presumes” that future programs to extend the operational life of existing warheads “will be allowed to cannibalize the pits of weapons currently held in strategic reserve.” One alternative to manufacturing new plutonium cores, or pits, is to reuse pits from warheads in storage.

NNSA Administrator Thomas D’Agostino replied that his agency has other facilities it can use to manufacture pits and conduct plutonium research, including PF-4 at Los Alamos, the Device Assembly Facility at the Nevada Test Site, and the Superblock facilities at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. The NNSA plans to “mak[e] full use of these capabilities,” while saving $1.3 billion over five years, he said. The NNSA’s current production capacity of about 10 to 20 pits per year “is enough to take care of the stockpile needs over the next decade,” D’Agostino testified March 21 before the Senate Appropriations energy and water subcommittee.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who chairs the energy and water panel, supported D’Agostino’s position during the March 21 hearing. She said in her opening statement that the fiscal year 2013 NNSA nuclear weapons budget request “provides more than sufficient funding to modernize the nuclear weapons stockpile.”

However, at a March 20 breakfast with reporters, Turner questioned the adequacy of the funding request and the strength of the administration’s commitment. “The whole concept of the investment in modernization of our nuclear weapons infrastructure is to ensure the capability of production” and the existence of a “sustainable scientific community to address our needs in maintaining our nuclear deterrent,” he said.

Delays have been justified with “the excuse of the day,” he said. He said he was concerned the administration would “nickel-and-dime us” rather than asking, “‘What is our policy need and our goals and objectives? Why do we need these facilities?’ and then proceeding.”

A new report by a National Academy of Sciences panel on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, released March 30, notes that the PF-4 facility at Los Alamos could be modified at a “relatively modest” cost to manufacture at least 40 pits per year.

At the March 14 hearing, Sessions held his fire on the Defense Department budget, saying that the department “was able to maintain its commitment to modernizing the triad of delivery vehicles with minimal change.”

The fiscal year 2013 defense budget request includes $292 million for a new long-range bomber, with plans to produce 80 to 100 planes at $550 million apiece starting in the mid-2020s; $2.0 million to study a new ALCM; $11.6 million to study a new ICBM; and $565 million for a new strategic submarine, the SSBN-X, to replace the current 14 Ohio-class subs starting in 2031. The fiscal year 2013 budget would defer the first procurement of the SSBN-X by two years, a step that the administration says would save $4.3 billion over five years. (See ACT, March 2012.)