by Kingston Reif
As it seeks to unilaterally and bilaterally reduce the role and number of nuclear weapons in U.S. national security policy, the Obama administration has also pledged to maintain a safe, secure, and effective nuclear deterrent. This dual track approach comports with the recommendation of the bipartisan Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States, which stated in its final report: “The United States should continue to pursue an approach to reducing nuclear dangers that balances deterrence, arms control, and nonproliferation. Singular emphasis on one or the other element would reduce the nuclear security of the United States.”
As an initial demonstration of its commitment to modernization, in February 2010, the administration requested $7 billion for the National Nuclear Security Administration’s (NNSA) weapons activities account, a $624 million increase over the previous years request. As former NNSA Administrator Linton Brooks put it at the time, “I’d have killed for that budget and that much high-level attention in the administration.” Similarly, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates concluded in the preface to April 2010 Nuclear Posture Review: “These investments, and the NPR’s strategy for warhead life extension, represent a credible modernization plan necessary to sustain the nuclear infrastructure and support our nation’s deterrent.”
When the administration submitted the New START treaty to the Senate in May 2010, it also submitted a congressionally mandated 10-year plan to maintain U.S. nuclear warheads and modernize their supporting infrastructure. Known as the “Section 1251 Report”, the plan called for spending $80 billion over the next ten years for NNSA weapons activities. In addition, the plan outlined $100 billion in spending over the next ten years to maintain and modernize U.S. nuclear delivery systems.
In late September, Congress took the unprecedented step of passing a short-term Continuing Resolution (CR) that included the administration’s FY 2011 budget request for weapons activities at NNSA. Whereas nearly all government programs were funded at fiscal year 2010 levels in the CR, the administration made a strong push for the exception for NNSA, demonstrating yet again its commitment to modernization. The CR expires on December 17.
Despite this gargantuan investment, Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ), the minority whip and an important voice on nuclear weapons issues in the Republican party, questioned the adequacy of the plan and the administration’s commitment to pursuing it in the long-term. In response, the administration in November updated the 1251 report by adding an additional $5 billion in proposed spending over the next decade, including $4.1 billion in spending for fiscal years 2012-2016. This amounts to a 21% increase over the FY 2011 spending level for NNSA weapons activities. The administration justified the increase in the following way:
Out-year budgets are, by definition, projections built on assumptions. NNSA has used the time since the Spring – when the NPR and New START were concluded – to work on updating initial assumptions. We now have a more complete understanding of stockpile requirements, including the life extension program needs. Similarly, the designs of key facilities such as the Uranium Processing Facility and the Chemical and Mettalurgy Research Replacement Facility have progressed. Based on information learned since the submission of the President’s FY2011 budget and the report under Section 1251 of the National Defense Authorization Act for FY 2010, we expect that funding requirements will increase in future budget years.
In addition, the administration expedited the preparation of its FY 2012 budget request so that concerned Senators could view it long before the normal submission of the President’s budget in February 2011. It also increased the FY 2012 request by $600 million.
In a letter to Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-MA) and Ranking Member Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN), the directors of the three national laboratories stated:
“We are very pleased by the update to the Section 1251 Report, as it would enable the laboratories to execute our requirements for ensuring a safe, secure, reliable and effective stockpile….In summary, we believe that the proposed budgets provide adequate support to sustain the safety, security, reliability and effectiveness of America’s nuclear deterrent within the limit of 1,550 deployed strategic warheads established by the New START Treaty with adequate confidence and acceptable risk.”
And in an op-ed in the Washington Times, NNSA Administrator Tom D’Agostino proclaimed:
Having worked on NNSA budget issues through the administrations of three presidents representing both parties, I can say with confidence that this is the most robust, sustained commitment to modernizing our nuclear deterrent since the end of the Cold War.>
To alleviate any lingering doubts, the Resolution of Ratification approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on September 16, 2010 contains a declaration stating that “if at any time more resources are required than estimated in the President’s 10-year plan, the President shall submit a report detailing: 1) how he proposes to remedy the shortfall; 2) the proposed level of funding required; 3) the impact of the shortfall on the safety, reliability, and performance of U.S. nuclear forces; and 4) whether and why, in the changed circumstances brought about by the resource shortfall, it remains in the national interest of the United States to remain a Party to the New START treaty.”
Is the U.S. the only established nuclear power that is not modernizing its nuclear arsenal?
Contrary to the claims of some critics, the U.S. has not allowed its nuclear arsenal to atrophy since the end of the Cold War. Even before the huge funding increase for U.S. nuclear warheads and their supporting infrastructure proposed by the Obama administration, the U.S. has maintained a safe, secure, and effective nuclear arsenal that is second to none. The fact that the U.S. is not building new missiles and warheads like the Russians and Chinese does not mean it is falling way behind. Those who continue to argue that Washington doesn’t show enough interest in modernizing its nuclear weapons should be forced to answer a simple question: If given the choice, would they trade the U.S. nuclear arsenal for the Russian or Chinese nuclear arsenals? Would they trade U.S. programs to maintain its arsenal for the Russian or Chinese programs? Clearly, the answers are no.
Is the administration’s plan to maintain and modernize U.S. delivery vehicles inadequate?
Some critics have claimed that the $100 billion proposed by the administration to maintain and modernize delivery systems only makes a commitment to a next-generation submarine – not to a next generation bomber, ballistic missile, or air-launched cruise missile. However, this belies the fact that decisions on all of these systems do not need to be made now. In response to a question for the record from Senator James Risch (R-ID), STRATCOM Commander Gen. Kevin Chilton stated:
The estimated investment of over $100 billion for strategic delivery vehicles over the next decade, provided in the section 1251 report, represents a best estimate of costs associated with deployed systems and programs underway and planned. This estimate does not include all of the costs associated with potential future modernization programs. The FY 2011–2020 costs provided in the sec. 1251 report include funds for sustaining and upgrading existing systems, including the B–2A and B–52H bombers, Minuteman III ICBMs, and the Ohio-class SSBN. In addition, the report includes estimated costs for the Ohio-class SSBN replacement, with the initial funding for this program having been provided in the FY 2010 DOD budget. These FY 2011–2020 cost estimates do not provide funds for other possible follow-on systems—the ALCM follow-on and the Minuteman III ICBM follow-on, and a possible follow-on heavy bomber—studies are now underway regarding options for these systems. As specific decisions are made regarding future systems, necessary funding will be requested in future DOD budget requests. Given this level of commitment, the ability of the present force to be adequately sustained through the New START Treaty and the time available to consider the nature of future deterrent forces beyond the new SSBN, I believe the Senate should provide their consent for ratification of New START. [emphasis mine.
What’s the relationship between modernization and arms control?
On one level, the question of how best to maintain the U.S. nuclear stockpile is outside the four corners of New START. We should want our weapons to be safe, secure, and effective with our without the treaty. As Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser during the Ford and George H.W. Bush administrations, and Jake Garn, a former Republican senator from Utah, recently wrote, “the treaty permits modernization by both sides. Each side is equally advantaged or disadvantaged. But we will only be disadvantaged by what we choose not to do with respect to modernization. Concerns about modernization, therefore, are not an argument against the treaty.”
However, as the Strategic Posture Commission noted, there is an important political relationship between sustaining the deterrent and advancing a far-reaching nonproliferation agenda. The George W. Bush administration did not foster a bipartisan consensus about the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. national security policy or the mission of the nuclear laboratories, which was reflected in the constraints placed on and reductions in funding for many of NNSA’s programs, most notably the Reliable Replacement Warhead program. In putting forth both a credible arms control and nonproliferation agenda and a credible plan to maintain the deterrent, the Obama administration reversed this trend. But this consensus is unlikely to hold if either pillar is neglected. As Garn and Scowcroft point out, New START“provides a vehicle whereby some Democrats not usually known for their support of strategic systems can bring themselves to commit to modernization, while, at the same time, some Republicans not usually known for their support for arms control can bring themselves to vote for ratification. Conversely, rejecting the treaty may well break this consensus and result in no modernization of our forces.