Yesterday the House Armed Services Committee marked up (i.e. wrote) the Fiscal Year National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). As was the case last year, Rep. Michael Turner (R-OH) led the charge in offering risky amendments that could undermine American nuclear policy. Capitalizing on the new Republican majority in the House, the amendments adopted this year were even more extreme than last year.
This defense bill is scheduled to be debated on the House floor the week of May 23.
During the strategic forces section of the mark up the committee addressed (by my count) a total of 13 amendments. Two of these amendments were accepted by voice vote, three were withdrawn, two were accepted without any debate, one was defeated on a voice vote, and five particularly controversial amendments were approved almost entirely by party line roll call votes.
One of the amendments on ground based midcourse defense system prompted two GOP defections.
Democrats on the committee made a valiant effort to talk some sense into their GOP colleagues, but their ears were closed.
It seems that Republicans on the committee have a love affair with nuclear weapons. They find even modest treaties that enjoy overwhelming bipartisan support difficult to accept, and want to prevent further nuclear weapons cuts.
Republicans yesterday kept using the figure of 1,550 U.S. nuclear weapons. That is the number of deployed strategic nuclear weapons allowed by the New START Treaty, but in fact as of 2010 the U.S. retains a total of 5,113 nuclear bombs, almost all of which are much larger than those that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 and can destroy a city.
Many of the Republican amendments were drawn from a bill introduced by Rep. Turner on May 5 known as the New START Implementation Act – which should more aptly be described as the New START Undermining Act.
According to Turner, the purpose of the bill (H.R. 1750; full text here) is to hold the Obama administration accountable to the long-term commitments it made on modernization and missile defense during the Senate’s consideration of the New START treaty and limit the administration’s ability to pursue nuclear weapons reductions below New START levels.
Senator Kyl plans to introduce his own version of H.R. 1750 in the Senate soon.
Turner’s bill contains many egregious provisions, the most harmful of which is the section containing limitations on the implementation of New START and potential future nuclear reductions even if such reductions would strengthen U.S. national security. The clear intent of the provision is to interfere with the Pentagon’s ability to implement the New START treaty and undercut the authority of the President and senior military leaders to determine U.S. nuclear policies…
Section 4 of H.R. 1750 would delay the reductions in deployed forces under New START until the Secretaries of Defense and Energy certify that the plan to modernize the nuclear weapons complex and delivery systems is being carried out. Supporters of this provision describe it as an effort to put speed bumps in the way of New START implementation.
Section 4 also states that no funds may be obligated to retire, dismantle, or eliminate any non-deployed strategic or non-strategic nuclear weapon until the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement (CMRR) nuclear facility and the Uranium Processing Facility (UPF) are fully operational and capable of producing 80 plutonium pits, the core unit of a nuclear weapon, and 80 canned subassemblies per year (which house the uranium secondary of a nuclear warhead), respectively. These buildings are not scheduled to be operational until at least 2024.
Finally, section 4 prohibits any reductions below the limits of 1,550 deployed strategic nuclear warheads and 700 deployed delivery vehicles (missiles and bombers) in the New START treaty unless such action is sanctioned by a treaty approved by the Senate or authorized by an Act of Congress. All of these provisions, some of which were amended for clarity, were included in the House Armed Services Committee’s mark of the defense bill. UPDATE: The amendments can be viewed here.
Section 4’s language on New START is daft:
- Implementation of the New START treaty is legally binding on the United States in domestic and international law.
- Section 4 could infringe on the Department of Defense’s flexibility to implement the New START treaty and structure U.S nuclear forces. It could require the military to spend scarce financial resources to retain deployed nuclear forces longer than it would prefer to keep them.
- Withholding funding for implementation of the reductions required by the New START treaty could prompt Russia to follow suit. This could leave Russia with a larger number of nuclear warheads with which to target the U.S.
- Continued efforts to link New START to nuclear modernization are redundant. This issue is already addressed in Condition 9 of the New START Resolution of Ratification.
- While the Obama administration’s budget requests for the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Agency (NNSA) in Fiscal Year 2011 and Fiscal Year 2012 and its ten-year plan to modernize the stockpile as required by the Section 1251 report demonstrate its strong commitment to nuclear modernization, it was House Budget Committee Chairman Ryan and House Appropriations Committee Chairman Rogers who proposed to slash these funds by over $300 million in H.R. 1 earlier this year.
- Implementation of New START should not be held hostage to unforeseen events such as a decision by a future Congress to limit funding for NNSA (as was the case in H.R. 1), delays in the completion of a life extension program or the construction of a new facility (a recent GAO report found that such delays are common and due to many factors), the discovery of efficiencies that could allow for the completion of programs at a reduced cost, or new geopolitical/military/economic circumstances that might alter current plans.
The prohibitions on reductions of the stockpile of nuclear weapons not currently deployed on missiles and bombers and potential unilateral reductions below New START levels are equally dubious:
- Previous Republican administrations have unilaterally reduced the size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal unencumbered by extreme preconditions. For example,in 1991, in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War, President George H.W. Bush announced that the U.S. would dramatically reduce its arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons, which led the Soviet Union to take similar steps, dramatically increasing U.S. security. Furthermore, the George W. Bush administration announced in 2004 that it planned to unilaterally reduce the U.S. nuclear stockpile by “nearly 50 percent” by 2012. This reduction was achieved in December 2007, five years early, at which point the administration also stated that an additional 15 percent reduction would be completed by 2012.
- The provision could prevent the retirement of the TLAM-N as mandated by the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, an archaic non-strategic nuclear weapon the Navy says it no longer needs.
- According to Russian scholar and former State Duma member Alexei Arbatov, Russian strategic nuclear forces will shrink dramatically because Moscow is retiring older systems faster than it is adding new weapons. As it implements the New START reductions, Russia is likely to reduce its forces well below the treaty’s limits, perhaps to as low as 350-400 deployed delivery vehicles and 1,000-1,100 deployed warheads (according to New START’s counting rules). Neither this President nor a future President should be precluded from considering reductions to meet Russia at such levels, especially if doing so might encourage Moscow not to build its strategic forces back up to New START levels.
- As my colleague Nick Roth points out, depending on how one defines “non-deployed,” Section 4 could halt vital dismantlement activities until at least 2024 when the new nuclear facilities are scheduled to be operational, in effect forcing the Department of Energy to retain old warheads it doesn’t need. UPDATE: The amendment accepted by the Committee includes an exception stating that the limitation shall not apply to weapons currently awaiting dismantlement. Even as revised, however, the provision could prevent the Department of Energy from dismantling additional weapons from the active stockpile that it determines it no longer needs or requires to perform surveillance activities in support of maintaining the stockpile.
The practical effect of Turner’s legislation would be to lock in the status quo on nuclear policy for the next 10-15 years. According to a growing number of national security experts from both parties, this status quo is increasingly untenable. The bill could force military leaders to maintain an excess number of nuclear weapons when it no longer makes strategic or financial sense to do so.
Finally, I would note that this legislation is in keeping with Republican efforts in the mid/late 1990s to impose legislative constraints on the ability of President Bill Clinton to reduce the size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal below the limits in the START I treaty, which forced the Navy and the Air Force to spend money to keep weapons, including 4 Trident submarines and 50 Peacekeeper missiles, that they no longer needed, when the resources could have been better used elsewhere. While this constraint barred President Clinton from making reductions, it was removed without Republican opposition in the FY 2002 defense bill in part to accommodate President George W. Bush’s desire to unilaterally eliminate the Peacekeeper missiles and remove the Trident submarines from the nuclear force.
The FY 2012 defense bill now moves to the House floor, where the Republican majority will prevent the removal of these damaging amendments from the bill. Let us hope that cooler heads prevail when the Senate takes up the defense bill this summer.