Rep. Turner, Sen. Kyl Try to Rewrite Terms of New START Resolution of Ratification

Rep. Michael Turner (Image Source: The Atlantic Council)

By Rob Golan-Vilella and Daryl G. Kimball

Last December, the Senate approved the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) by a vote of 71-26. In the context of the treaty's consideration, a number of Senators expressed their support for providing the resources necessary to maintain the existing nuclear weapon stockpile and upgrade the National Nuclear Security Administration's (NNSA) weapons complex facilities used for that purpose.

Earlier in the year, the Barack Obama administration outlined a robust 10-year plan totaling $85 billion in NNSA weapons spending. The plan represents more than a 20% increase above NNSA weapons spending during the George W. Bush administration. As Senator Robert Casey (D-Pa.) noted in a May 10 speech, these funding levels represent "more than enough" to get the job done.

To address concerns about sustaining these higher funding levels in the years ahead, the following clause was written into the treaty's resolution of ratification:

[T]he United States is committed to providing the resources needed to achieve these objectives, at a minimum at the levels set forth in the President's 10-year plan provided to the Congress....

If, in future years the administration's budget request is not appropriated by Congress, the President would then be required to submit a report to Congress detailing how he proposed to remedy the shortfall, the impact of the shortfall on U.S. nuclear forces, and whether "it remains in the national interest of the United States to remain a Party to the New START Treaty" in light of the shortfall. This understanding was the basis of the Senate's advice and consent for ratification of New START.

Six months later, a handful of House Republicans and the chief opponent of New START in the Senate, Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), are trying to undermine that understanding.

Rep. Michael Turner (R-Ohio) has introduced a bill in the House that would hold New START hostage to Congressional appropriation of the NNSA weapons complex budget. Turner's "New START Treaty Implementation Act," along with companion legislation from Sen. Kyl, would link funding for the reductions in nuclear forces to funding for the weapons complex, blocking funding for the treaty's implementation unless the modernization plans are carried out.

Some of the provisions of the bill were included as amendments to the 2012 defense authorization bill, which was approved in the House Armed Services Committee last week. The chief argument put forward by Turner and backers of the legislation is that it will hold the Obama administration accountable for its promise to increase NNSA weapons spending.

What is ironic is that it was the House Republicans who tried to cut funding for the U.S. nuclear weapons complex just three months ago—not the Obama administration. Earlier this year, in the debate over the continuing resolutions to fund the government for the remainder of this fiscal year, the House Republicans put forward their proposal, H.R. 1, which passed the House in February with the votes of nearly every single Republican. The legislation would have cut funding for NNSA weapons activities by over $300 million, from $7.009 billion to $6.696 billion.

In short, as ACA has previously made clear to Reuters: "Senator Kyl and Congressman Turner shouldn't be saying they are going to hold the Obama administration's feet to the fire. If they are serious, they should be talking to the Republicans."

Kingston Reif has written an excellent post on the many flaws in this legislation at Nukes of Hazard.

But it is also important to recognize that the Kyl-Turner legislation is based on the erroneous belief that if Congress appropriates even a dollar less than the $85 billion outlined in the 10-year plan for NNSA weapons activities, the safety, reliability, and effectiveness of the U.S. nuclear arsenal is somehow in doubt.

In reality, the technical strategy for maintaining the effectiveness and reliability of the U.S. nuclear stockpile has been in place for more than a decade. Eighteen years after the last U.S. nuclear test explosion, it is clear that the arsenal can be maintained without nuclear test explosions and without pursuing new warhead designs. Over the past decade, the NNSA's life extension programs have successfully refurbished existing types of nuclear warheads and can continue to do so indefinitely.

The nuclear weapons laboratory directors report they now have a deeper understanding of the arsenal than ever before. Since 1994, each warhead type in the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal has been determined to be safe and reliable; life extension programs have refurbished and modernized major warhead types. A 2009 study by JASON, the independent technical review panel, concluded that the "lifetimes of today's nuclear warheads could be extended for decades, with no anticipated loss in confidence." Age-related defects in non-nuclear components can be expected, but nuclear explosive testing is not needed to discover these problems or address them.

With the Obama administration's $85 billion, 10-year plan to maintain the nuclear arsenal and modernize the nuclear weapons complex, it is now also abundantly clear that the weapons laboratories have more than enough funding to maintain the U.S. arsenal. Minor cuts in NNSA weapons spending over time won't change this reality. What is important is that the nuclear weapons labs remain focused on the highest priority tasks and that they pursue conservative warhead life extension strategies that minimize unnecessary and expensive alterations to already well-understood warhead types.

If at some point in the future Congress decides that the higher levels of funding for the NNSA's projects are not fully justified, if cost savings can be achieved, or if program delays require the deferral of spending in a given year, such adjustments will not have a serious—nor even a minor—impact on the core activities necessary to maintain the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

Congress would be wise to reject Rep. Turner's and Sen. Kyl's attempt to second-guess the Senate's decision to ratify New START. It should encourage sufficient funding for the maintenance of the remaining nuclear arsenal, but there is absolutely no reason to hold the treaty hostage to a predetermined level of spending for the nuclear weapon complex.