Center for Arms Control

by Kingston Reif [contact information]

Do You Even Have to HASC: House Republicans Still Love the Bomb

Just when you thought the Republican-controlled House Armed Services Committee (HASC) couldn’t possibly go any crazier on nuclear weapons and missile defense, it doubled down on its fanaticism during last week’s mark up of the FY 2014 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). The result is a bill that if passed into law would significantly weaken US national security.

Early in the morning of June 6th the Committee approved its version of the NDAA (H.R. 1960) by a vote of 59-2. The legislation authorizes $552.1 billion for national defense (function 050) and $85.8 billion for overseas contingency operations (largely for the war in Afghanistan), for a total of $637.9 billion. Like the President’s budget request, the Committee completely ignores sequestration.

While Committee Republicans warn that cuts to the defense budget are eroding the US military, they continue to insist on wasting millions of dollars to sustain an excessively large nuclear arsenal designed to confront Cold War threats that no longer exist. Spearheaded by Reps. Michael Turner (R-OH), Mike Rogers (R-AL), and Doug Lamborn (R-CO), the Committee’s iteration of the NDAA includes numerous profligate funding proposals and policy provisions on nuclear weapons and missile defense, such as:

  • funding for a third national missile defense site on the East Coast of the United States that military leaders did not ask for and do not want;
  • constraints on the Pentagon’s ability to implement New START in violation of our international obligations;
  • limits on changes to US nuclear posture and further reductions below New START even if they may be in US security interests;
  • money above the President’s budget request for the unrealistic and unaffordable B61 life extension program; and
  • limits on the availability of funds for vital programs that reduce the threat posed by weapons of mass destruction in the hands of terrorists and detect nuclear weapons tests.

The House passed defense authorization bills containing similarly flagrant constraints the previous two years, but due to opposition in the Senate, the final version of these bills either eliminated or significantly watered down the objectionable provisions. Expect the Senate to raise objections again this year, as the latest proposals once again defy national security and fiscal sense. The Senate Armed Services Committee is scheduled to mark up its version of the defense authorization bill later this week.

The White House is likely to threaten to veto the final version of this year’s NDAA if it includes many of the provisions contained in the Committee’s legislation, especially the limitations on New START implementation and further nuclear weapons reductions.

With the full House slated to debate the NDAA this week, expect House Democrats to submit amendments challenging the Strangelovian pathology of their Republican counterparts.

Below is a summary of the most egregious funding proposals and policy provisions in the Committee version of the bill. For a more exhaustive summary of the legislation, see our report here.

A National Missile Defense Site on the East Coast

The Committee version of the bill includes an increase of $247 million above the budget request for the ground based midcourse defense system. Of that amount, $140 million is to begin construction of an East Coast site and $107 million is to begin long-lead procurement of an additional 14 ground based interceptor rocket boosters. The bill also includes an amendment offered by Rep. Turner during the Committee mark that would mandate the construction of an East Coast site by 2018. According to a 2012 Congressional Budget Office estimate, a ground based interceptor site on the East Cost would cost at least $3.6 billion to build and operate over the next five years.

The Pentagon has clearly stated that additional money for an East Coast missile defense site in FY 2014 would not be of use at this time. Rushing to build such a site is not just a case of “buy before you fly”; it is a case of “buy before you study before you fly.” The initial site selection study required by last year’s NDAA isn’t scheduled to be complete until the end of this year. Once the Pentagon has narrowed down a longer list of possible sites, performing an environmental impact study would take 18-24 months. The budget request already includes the funding the Pentagon needs for these activities in FY 2014.

Moreover, expanding the current ground based midcourse defense system to the East Coast would not increase US defensive capabilities. Pentagon officials argue that the current system in Alaska and California defends the entire continental United States against a limited attack from North Korea and Iran today and in the near future. A September 2012 report by the National Academy of Sciences called for the deployment of an East Coast site, but not before the development of a brand new system to replace the current system. According to the report, the present ground based midcourse defense system is fatally flawed. Its biggest shortcoming is that it can’t reliably discriminate between an incoming warhead and decoys and countermeasures designed to fool the defense - an intractable problem to which there is not yet a solution.

The National Academy of Sciences estimated that the 20-year life cycle cost to put their new system at two sites, including the East Coast, could cost up to $25.3 billion and take much longer than five years to design and build.

Forcing the Pentagon to spend money on an East Coast site and additional ground based interceptors before a need for these assets has been identified would be tremendous waste of taxpayer dollars, especially given current budget conditions. It would also divert funding from more urgent missile defense needs, such as the testing program and improving sensor and discrimination capabilities.

For more on the folly of an East Coast site, see here.

UPDATE, June 11: In a June 10 letter to Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI), Vice Admiral James Syring, Director of the Missile Defense Agency, and Lt. Gen. Richard Formica, Commander, Joint Functional Command for Integrated Missile Defense, unequivocally stated that "There is no validated military requirement to deploy an East Coast missile defense site." They also expressed their opposition to mandating deployment of an East Coast site before the studies of the proposal required by last year's NDAA are completed and that there is a more cost effective and less expensive alternative to an East Coast site.

New START Implementation and Further Nuclear Weapons Reductions

The HASC NDAA would deny funding for the $75 million included in the Pentagon’s budget request to implement New START until the Pentagon submits a plan on how the treaty will be implemented and the President pledges that he will not seek further reductions in the US nuclear arsenal that circumvent the treaty process. The legislation also includes a statement of policy that any further reductions below the New START levels must be approved by the Senate as part of a treaty. Finally, the bill would prohibit any reductions below the New START limit of 800 deployed and non-deployed delivery systems unless the Senate has approved a treaty that limits Russia’s arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons, the President has certified that Russia is in compliance with its nuclear arms control agreements and obligations, and the US intelligence community has high confidence judgments with respect to the nuclear forces and posture of China.

These provisions are unreasonable for numerous reasons. First, New START continues to strengthen US security. At a May 2013 House Armed Services Committee hearing, STRATCOM Commander Gen. Robert Kehler stated that New START “is a very good thing…and is certainly in our national interest.”

Second, the Pentagon is in the process of studying the most efficient way to meet the New START limits by 2018. The services are assessing various force structure alternatives to implement the treaty. According to the Pentagon, a final decision on what the New START force structure will look like will be made by the end of 2013. Constraints on New START implementation would infringe on the Pentagon’s flexibility to implement the treaty in the most cost-effective manner, perhaps even causing the United States to miss the treaty’s 2018 implementation deadline, which could prompt Russia to rethink its own commitment to the treaty.

Third, legislating that the President may only pursue further reductions below New START via a legally-binding treaty or a congressional-executive agreement would eliminate options that previous Presidents have used to set US nuclear force levels. President Obama's predecessors, especially his Republican predecessors, have adjusted the size of the nuclear arsenal both with - and without - formal treaties or executive agreements.

Funding the B61 Life Extension Program at the Expense of Nuclear Terrorism Prevention Efforts

The Committee adopted an amendment offered by Rep. Lamborn that would slash 20% of the budget for Global Threat Reduction Initiative (GTRI), a proven and relatively inexpensive program to keep America safe from the threat of nuclear and radiological terrorism, unless the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) certifies to Congress that the $10 billion B61 life extension program, which is already way behind schedule due to mismanagement, won’t be delayed beyond 2019.

Whatever one thinks about the merits of the B61 life extension program, funding nuclear weapons at the expense of vital threat-reduction programs is unacceptable. Republicans and Democrats agree the nuclear terrorism is one of the gravest threats to US national security, and GTRI, which is also housed within NNSA, is our nation’s first line of defense against this threat. For example, since 2009, the program has removed all weapons-usable nuclear material from ten countries. Moreover, while the FY 2014 request for the B61 life extension program rose by 45 percent over last year’s appropriation (and the HASC bill showers an additional $44 million on the program above the budget request), the request for GTRI was reduced by 15 percent. In other words, the B61 is already leeching funding from the GTRI program.

Meanwhile, the current plan for the B61 life extension program is unrealistic, unnecessary, and unaffordable. Two years ago, NNSA estimated that the program would cost $4 billion and start in 2017. Now the estimate has ballooned to over $10 billion and the first refurbished bomb won’t be produced until 2020 at the earliest.

Cheaper alternatives to the $10 billion life extension plan exist, but NNSA, with the support of HASC, continue to oppose them. For example, in an April 2013 congressional hearing, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Chairwoman of the Senate Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee, said that NNSA had considered but rejected a less-ambitious refurbishment approach that could extend the life of the B61 until the early 2030s for only $1.5-$2 billion, or 80-85 percent less than the currently proposed program. Known as the “triple alt,” this option would replace only three key bomb parts that are said to be nearing the end of their useful lives in the next ten years. The current plan would replace hundreds of additional components most of which do not need to be replaced now.

Kingston Reif 202-546-0795 ext. 2103 kreif@armscontrolcenter.org

Kingston Reif is the Director of Nuclear Non-Proliferation at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, where his work focuses on arms control, nuclear nonproliferation, nuclear weapons, and preventing nuclear terrorism. He has published letters and articles on nuclear weapons policy in such venues as the Washington Post, Washington Times, Wall Street Journal, Survival, Defense News, and Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

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