Volume 3, Issue 8, May 16, 2012
This week, the House of Representatives will debate and vote on the annual defense authorization bill, which in its current form would hold up implementation of the 2010 New START Treaty unless Congress increases spending on nuclear weapons activities that the Pentagon did not request and does not want.
On May 9, Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee pushed through an amendment by Rep. Michael Turner (R-Ohio) to the Fiscal Year 2013 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that would block funding for New START implementation unless higher spending targets for National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) nuclear weapons production facilities set in 2010 are met in future years.
In response, the Obama administration issued a warning to Congress yesterday that the President may veto the final bill if these provisions survive, stating that sections 1053-1059 would "impinge on the President's ability to implement the New START Treaty and to set U.S. nuclear weapons policy."
Rep. Turner's partisan "hostage taking" ignores the fact that there is bi-partisan support for New START and bi-partisan agreement among congressional appropriators that additional nuclear weapon budget increases are unaffordable and unnecessary.
Rep. Turner also ignores the fact that twenty years after the Cold War the United States does not need as many nuclear weapons as we plan to maintain. Even after New START is implemented, the U.S. will have 1,550 nuclear warheads deployed on long-range missiles, bombers and submarines.
New START is Too Important for Partisan Games
If the House NDAA provisions to tie up New START were to become law, Russia would likely halt its nuclear reductions as well, risking the treaty's collapse. This would allow Moscow to rebuild its nuclear forces above the treaty ceiling of 1,550 deployed strategic warheads and increase the number of nuclear weapons aimed at the United States.
Moreover, the inspection system established under the treaty could collapse, depriving the U.S. of crucial data exchanges and on-site inspections of Russian forces, undermining transparency and strategic stability.
Rep. Turner and his allies complain that the administration's $7.6 billion request for NNSA weapons activities for FY2013 is 4 percent lower than projected in 2010, during the New START debate in the Senate.
But they ignore the reality that the FY2013 request is actually 5 percent higher than the 2012 enacted budget. Rather than a breach of faith, this year's NNSA request represents a healthy increase in the face of fiscal pressures imposed by the 2011 Budget Control Act.
No Need to Rush New Plutonium Lab
The main issue of contention is a plutonium laboratory, called the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement (CMRR) Facility, to be built at Los Alamos National Lab in New Mexico, which the administration deferred for at least five years.
However, far from being upset that the administration was not seeking CMRR funds this year, the House Appropriations Committee complained that the facility should have been shelved sooner.
"By not fully considering all available options, millions of taxpayer dollars have been spent for work which will not be needed until a much later date," the Republican-led appropriations committee wrote about CMRR on April 24.
Even so, Rep. Turner and company warn that without CMRR, the U.S. does not have the capability to make 50 to 80 newly produced plutonium cores or "pits" annually for refurbished warheads.
Their bill would authorize $100 million more for the facility next year, call on DoD to cover future costs and stipulate that it is built no later than 2024 (sections 2804-2805).
The reality, however, is that there is no identified need to produce that many plutonium pits. NNSA Administrator Thomas D'Agostino testified to Congress on April 17 that the U.S. does not need CMRR to maintain an effective stockpile. "That's great news for the country, because we're not forced into making rash decisions on significant investments in a very short period of time. So we have time to evaluate this area," D'Agostino said.
With cost estimates for CMRR skyrocketing from $600 million to $6 billion, the delay is a reasonable response to tight budgets given that other NNSA facilities have "inherent capacity" to support ongoing and future plutonium activities, according to NNSA. CMRR deferral will not compromise NNSA's ability to maintain the nuclear stockpile.
East Coast Missile Interceptor Site is Premature
The House bill also includes a $460 million increase for the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) program, including $100 million to study a strategic ballistic missile interceptor site on the East Coast (section 223). This would be in addition to the two sites already built in California and Alaska at a combined cost of $30 billion. The Congressional Budget Office said this new project would cost $3.6 billion over five years, which is likely a conservative estimate.
The Pentagon did not request funding for an East Coast site and does not want it. "In my military judgment, the program of record for ballistic missile defense for the homeland, as we've submitted it, is adequate and sufficient to the task," Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at a Pentagon news briefing last Thursday. "So I don't see a need beyond what we've submitted in the last budget."
The White House said the proposal is "premature because the Administration has not identified a requirement for a third U.S.-based missile defense site, nor assessed the feasibility or cost in a cost-constrained environment."
Moreover, the Obama administration is already building an interceptor system in Europe, known as the Phased Adaptive Approach (PAA), to handle potential attacks from Iran, which has yet to deploy long-range missiles that could reach the United States.
The performance of the West Coast GMD system should give pause before deploying a similar one on the East Coast. The GMD system has not had a successful intercept test against since 2008, with two failures in 2010.
According to a recent National Research Council report, which has been misleadingly referenced in support of a near-term East Coast site, the GMD system "has serious shortcomings, and provides at best a limited, initial defense against a relatively primitive threat." Moreover, the GMD system has not been proven effective against a realistic target including decoys.
Building a costly third site for a GMD system that is ineffective and designed to counter a long-range missile threat that may not materialize for many years is not in the best interests of U.S. national security.
Time to Stop Playing Games
It is time to stop playing political games with U.S. nuclear weapons policy. Continued, verified reductions of excessive U.S. and Russian arsenals will enhance U.S. security by reducing the nuclear threat.
As the Pentagon said in January, "It is possible that our deterrence goals can be achieved with a smaller nuclear force, which would reduce the number of nuclear weapons in our inventory, as well as their role in U.S. national security strategy."
Today, Gen. James E. Cartwright, the retired vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and commander of U.S. nuclear forces in the George W. Bush administration, said that U.S. deterrence requirements could be achieved with a total arsenal of 900 strategic nuclear warheads, with only half of them deployed.
A smaller nuclear force would also save money.
The major threats the U.S. faces today, such as proliferation, terrorism or cyber attacks, cannot be addressed by nuclear arms. Rather than demanding American taxpayers cough up yet more money for a new nuclear facility that we don't need, Congress needs to focus on more cost-effective solutions that address the nation's future defense needs.--Daryl G. Kimball and Tom Z. Collina
Note: An earlier version of essay appeared in the May 12, 012 issue of Defense News.
The Arms Control Association (ACA) is an independent, membership-based organization dedicated to providing information and practical policy solutions to address the dangers posed by the world's most dangerous weapons. ACA publishes the monthly journal, Arms Control Today.