"I want to tell you that your fact sheet on the [Missile Technology Control Regime] is very well done and useful for me when I have to speak on MTCR issues."

– Amb. Thomas Hajnoczi
Chair, MTCR
May 19, 2021
Sen. Kyl Attempts to Kill New START with More Quibbles About Obama's $85b Nuclear Weapons Complex Plan
Share this

Arms Control NOW

By Daryl G. Kimball

In his latest attempt to delay New START in order to 'earmark' still more funding for the well-funded weapons labs, Senators Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) and Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) have sent a 5-page letter (PDF) to fellow Republican Senators outlining their remaining (minor) "concerns" and peculiar interpretation of reality regarding the updated version of the Obama administration's so-called "Section 1251 Plan" on maintaining and upgrading the National Nuclear Security Administration's (NNSA) programs to maintain the shrinking number of U.S. nuclear weapons over the coming decade.

The Nov. 24 letter is clearly a desperate, last-ditch attempt to delay a Senate vote on New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which the U.S. military leadership and major U.S. allies have said is vital to U.S. security. Kyl's latest "pay-to-play" gambit is fiscally irresponsible, politically unsustainable, and damaging to U.S. security.


In May, the administration outlined its $80 billion, 10-year plan for the NNSA's nuclear weapons complex. That proposal added about $10 billion in new money above and beyond previous spending levels. The administration requested $7 billion for the weapons complex in fiscal year 2011, which is about 13 percent higher than it was in the final year of the George W. Bush administration. Linton Brooks, the head of the National Nuclear Security Administration in the Bush administration, said in April, "I'd have killed for that budget and that much high-level attention in the administration."

At the same time, the administration also outlined a plan for spending another $100 billion over the same period to upgrade strategic nuclear delivery systems.

On August 4, Sen. Kyl told Reuters that he wanted assurances that appropriations bills passed by Congress for fiscal 2011 and the budget for fiscal 2012 must reflect the modernization plan. Since it could be hard to get everything done before the November election, the Senate might need a "lame duck" session if it wants to vote on the new START this year, he said.

On November 17, as per Kyl's request, the Obama administration delivered its revised estimates for funding the nuclear weapons complex over the next decade. The plan now totals $85 billion, including an additional $4.1 billion in additional spending for fiscal years 2012-2016, mainly to cover possible cost increases for two new facilities planned for Tennessee and New Mexico.

Kyl's Quibbles

Unfortunately, Sen. Kyl's Nov. 24 letter, however, makes it clear he can't take "yes" for an answer and that he's trying to move the goalposts. That Corker agreed to add his name is all the more odd given the fact that he voted for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee resolution of approval for the treaty in September. The Committee approved the resolution with a bipartisan 14-4 majority.

Kyl and Corker do not appear to be dissatisfied with the amount of money the administration is proposing for funding the nuclear weapons complex over the next decade, but the with minute details regarding the pace of funding and the manner in which Congress appropriates it.

Senator Kyl has still not offered any substantive objection to the New START treaty itself and there is nothing in his memo that explicitly rules out a vote on the treaty this year, though his stalling tactics are clearly intended to delay consideration well into 2011 or later.

The memo repeats a number of often myths about the "modernization" of the nuclear weapons complex that ACA has pointed out many times before. (See ACA's May 2010 Issue Brief on "Modernization Myths and Realities").

Kyl's letter cites a two-year old statement from Defense Secretary Robert Gates in an apparent attempt to imply that somehow Gates believes that the $85 billion, 10-year plan for the weapons complex is inadequate. Kyl and Corker ignore Gates' statement from this year about the Obama administration's original 1251 plan and the testimony of the laboratory directors about the adequacy of the plan.

Defense Secretary Gates wrote in his preface to the April 2010 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), "These investments, and the NPR's strategy for warhead life extension, represent a credible modernization plan necessary to sustain the nuclear infrastructure and support our nation's deterrent."

In a joint statement on the NPR from the directors of the three nuclear weapons laboratories issued April 9, Sandia's Tom Hunter, Los Alamos' Michael Anastasio, and Lawrence Livermore's George Miller said: "We are reassured that a key component of the NPR is the recognition of the importance of supporting 'a modern physical infrastructure--comprised of the national security laboratories and a complex of supporting facilities--and a highly capable workforce with the specialized skills needed to sustain the nuclear deterrent.'"

Kyl's and Corker's remaining "concerns" relate to certain imponderables that hardly merit holding up New START now: they argue that construction of the construction of the proposed Uranium Processing Facility in Corker's home state of Tennessee and the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement facility might be delayed by a couple of years unless there is even more money spent in the coming five years for those projects. They also hint that the Congress ought to apply an unorthodox system of three-year appropriations to fund the program, which would tie the hands of future Congresses and give contractors free reign. And all for very little benefit at best. If future Congresses believe that such funding increases are warranted, they should appropriate more money at the appropriate time, not now.

Kyl and Corker also say they want yet another "update" of the possible additional needs for increased funding for stockpile surveillance, which is the program used to identify potential maintenance needs for nuclear warheads. The Obama administration's proposed stockpile surveillance budget numbers are already higher than they were during the George W. Bush administration years. Back then, Kyl and Corker were not advocating higher funding for this program and did not threaten to hold up major national security priorities. Nor did they quibble with the adequacy of the Republican administration's (less generous) budget proposals for the NNSA weapons activities budget.

Kyl and Corker stretch their arguments to the extreme in their latest memo by complaining 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 of the active U.S. stockpile are imprudent until and unless such a capability is re-established. Kyl did not offer such objections in 2003 when the Senate considered George W. Bush's Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT).

That contradicts the views of the U.S. military and the lab directors, who do not believe that the modest reductions called for under New START must wait until the United States can remanufacture thousands of warheads as a "hedge" against a resurgent Russia or the highly unlikely possibility one of the warheads in the arsenal requires a fix through a more extensive life-extension program. In reality, the existing program for refurbishing existing warheads is working, the United States and Russia can and should reduce their overall nuclear stockpiles, and the United States will continue to maintain a large number of active warheads in a non-deployed reserve.

Enough Is Enough

New START has been thoroughly vetted. The case for New START is overwhelming. It is time for the Senate to put aside 2-3 days in the remaining days of the 2010 session to debate and approve the ratification of the treaty.

Further attempts to extract still more funding for the already well-funded nuclear weapons labs are fiscally irresponsible, politically unsustainable, and damaging to U.S. security.

The Obama administration's $85 billion, 10-year proposal to maintain the nuclear arsenal through life-extension programs and without renewed nuclear testing already provides the weapons labs with a credible plan and substantially greater resources to get the job done.

Sen. Kyl is acting in bad faith. He refuses to take "yes" for an answer. The Obama administration has comprehensively and quite promptly addressed his many questions about the nuclear weapons complex budget. Late this summer, Senator Kyl threatened to hold up consideration of New START unless and until the administration showed it could get its higher, fiscal 2011 request for NNSA weapons activities approved by the Democratic-controlled Congress; he demanded a preview of the administration's fiscal 2012 budget request for NNSA weapons activities; and he wanted updated budget estimates for the long-range 10-year plan.

The administration has met all three of these requests and then some.

So far, the Obama administration has ensured the its fiscal year 2011 budget request has not been cut by congressional appropriators. Congress must act before Dec. 3 to approve an extension of the federal budget. However, if the Senate does not vote on New START before year's end, the administration may not be able to protect the program from cuts.

The administration also developed and provided Congress with its fiscal 2012 budget request estimates three months ahead schedule and it has updated the earlier version of its 10-year plan for funding the NNSA nuclear weapons complex, adding $4.1 billion in additional spending for fiscal years 2012-2016. That brings the administration's total 10-year plan for nuclear weapons complex funding up to a whopping $85 billion, which is about 20% higher than spending for these programs during the George W. Bush era.

The Bottom Line

Kyl's fellow Republicans and the American people are poorly served by his refusal to heed the advice of American military leadership and national security experts from both parties who believe that the Obama administration's nuclear weapons complex funding strategy is 'more than enough' to get the job done and who believe prompt ratification of New START is critical to U.S. national security.

Further delaying the vote on New START would damage U.S. national security by preventing the re-establishment of on-site monitoring of Russian nuclear forces, jeopardizing the ongoing cooperation we need from Russia to contain Iran's nuclear ambitions, and it would shatter the fragile political consensus for higher funding to maintain the U.S. nuclear stockpile in the years ahead.