ACA Logo

Holding New START Hostage

Volume 3, Issue 6, April 20, 2012

In the next few weeks, the Republican leadership on the House Armed Services Committee is expected to try to block implementation of the New START Treaty unless the Obama administration agrees to further increase spending on the U.S. nuclear weapons infrastructure. This type of partisan "hostage taking" threatens to undermine U.S. national security, ignores budget reality, and defies common sense.

Blocking U.S. implementation of New START, as Strategic Forces Subcommittee chairman Rep. Michael Turner (R-Ohio)'s bill H.R. 4178 threatens to do, would likely result in Russia doing the same. The treaty would unravel, allowing Moscow to rebuild its forces above treaty levels and increase the number of nuclear weapons aimed at the United States. Moreover, the inspection system established under the treaty could collapse, depriving the United States of crucial data exchanges and on-site inspections of Russian forces.

Such outcomes are clearly not in the U.S. national security interest. Yet Rep. Turner would put New START at risk--ignoring the will of the 71 senators who voted for it--to extort additional spending on nuclear weapons that is unsustainable and unnecessary, and that key members of his own party do not support.

Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) added his voice to the debate with an April 17 letter to the Senate Armed Services Committee stating that "if modernization efforts to ensure the safety, security and reliability of a smaller stockpile are not sustained, then further reductions to the stockpile should not be considered" until New START expires in 2021. However, modernization efforts are being sustained, with increased spending in FY2013.

Both Sen. Lieberman's and Rep. Turner's proposals to hold New START and future arms reductions hostage are all pain, no gain.

Nuclear Weapons Funding is Sufficient

Critics often point out that the administration's FY2013 $7.6 billion request for National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) weapons activities is 4% lower than projected in 2010, during the New START debate in the Senate. What they tend to ignore is that the FY2013 request is actually 5% higher than the 2012 enacted budget.

Rather than a breach of faith, as Rep. Turner sees it, the FY2013 NNSA request represents a healthy increase despite fiscal pressures imposed by the bipartisan 2011 Budget Control Act and the GOP-led House Appropriations Committee's failure to fully fund the program last year. In fact, the Energy and Water Development Subcommittee marked up its FY2013 budget this week and did not add additional funds above the administration's $7.6 billion request.

Given the new fiscal environment, congress cannot expect two-year-old budget projections to remain valid. As Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) put it in March, the New START debate took place "nine months before the Budget Control Act became law," and thus "falling 4 percent short of the [2010-derived] target is reasonable given the fiscal reality facing us today."

Bipartisan Agreement: We Don't Need CMRR Now

The administration's FY2013 NNSA weapons activities budget request contains no funding for the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement (CMRR) Facility, to be built for plutonium research at Los Alamos National Lab in New Mexico, and deferred work for at least five years.

For FY2012, the House Appropriations Committee cut CMRR by $100 million, or 33 percent, indicating bipartisan concern about the need for CMRR.

As House Energy and Water Subcommittee Chair Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.) said last June:"Yes, 'Weapons Activities' is below the President's request, but this request included hundreds of millions of dollars for construction projects that are not ready to move forward, capabilities that are secondary to the primary mission of keeping our stockpile ready, and, yes, slush funds that the administration has historically used to address its needs...The recommendation before you eliminates these weaknesses and it is responsible."

For FY2013, the House Energy and Water Subcommittee has so far not provided any money for CMRR.

With total cost estimates for CMRR skyrocketing 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. As a result, the CMRR deferral will not compromise NNSA's ability to maintain the nuclear stockpile.

When asked at a February hearing if the FY2013 budget request fully meets the requirements to maintain the nuclear stockpile, NNSA Administrator Thomas D'Agostino said: "...it absolutely does, fully meets the requirements, and we'll be able to take care of the stockpile... So the stockpile is safe, secure, and reliable."

Air Force Gen. Robert Kehler, Commander of the U.S. Strategic Command, testified before the House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee April 17, that "I wouldn't want to suggest that the [nuclear] force that's deployed today is not safe, secure and effective. It is. I believe it can achieve its deterrence responsibilities as we sit there today. In fact, I'm extremely confident in that."

Charles McMillan, director of Los Alamos lab where CMRR would be built, told congress April 18 that the decision to defer CMRR "leaves the United States with no known capability to make 50 to 80 newly-produced pits on the timescales planned for stockpile modernization."

The reality, however, is that there is no identified need to produce that many plutonium pits and the nation has time to evaluate its options.

D'Agostino testified April 17 that "We're not hampered by saying the nation has to have a capability right now to make 50 or 80 pits per year in order to take care of the 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."

Assistant Defense Secretary for Global Strategic Affairs Madelyn Creedon testified April 17 that CMRR's planned production capacity would be revisited. She said, "what is the future pit requirement, how big CMRR has to be, how much plutonium it has to hold -- those are all decisions that may in fact change...when we once again resume consideration of the funding and the design of the CMRR."

New START Resolution of Approval Provides the Path Forward

In addition to being misguided, Rep. Turner's bill is unnecessary because the December 2010 New START Resolution of Advice and Consent already provides recourse. The resolution's condition 9 declared a "sense of the Senate" that the United States is committed to providing the resources needed to maintain nuclear weapons at the levels "set forth in the President's 10-year plan provided to the Congress pursuant to section 1251 of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2010 (Public Law 111-84)," otherwise know as the 1251 report.

Just in case Congress did not provide sufficient resources in the future, condition 9 of the resolution of ratification states that the President shall submit a report detailing how the administration would address the resource shortfall; the proposed level of funding required; the impact of the shortfall on the safety, reliability, and performance of 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."

It is the responsibility of Congress to fund programs, and Congress did not fully fund the administration's request for 1251 report activities in FY2012, nor is it likely to add money in FY2013. The Pentagon said in March that it intends to submit the condition 9 report soon on how to deal with the shortfall and on the value of remaining a party to New START.

New START Still In U.S. Interests

New START remains in the U.S. national interest because the treaty reduces the threat to the United States from Russian nuclear forces, and the administration has managed to save money in FY2013 while still achieving its goal of modernizing the nuclear arsenal and production complex.

Future nuclear force reductions cannot be held hostage to annual congressional debates about the particulars of each and every component of the NNSA budget, which is higher than it was before negotiations on New START began. It remains in the U.S. national security interest to verifiably reduce excess Cold War U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear arsenals.

As the Pentagon's January 2012 strategy document Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense says: "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." It would also save money.

The major threats the United States faces today, such as proliferation, terrorism or cyber attacks, cannot be addressed by nuclear arms. Rather than asking American taxpayers to cough up yet more money for yesterday's weapons, Congress needs to focus on more cost-effective solutions that address the nation's future defense needs.--Tom Z. Collina and Daryl G. Kimball

###

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.