08/28/2009 - 12:53

Local priorities vs. national interests in arms control

Travis Sharp

Travis Sharp

Sharp is a research associate at the Center for a New American Security. He blogs about nuclear weapons policy at...

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While beliefs about national sovereignty and international law matter, when it comes to arms control treaties, ideological considerations rarely trump pork-barrel politics. Would a senator from a state dependent on the nuclear weapons complex oppose an arms control treaty not on the basis of ideology, but because the treaty would mean the loss of jobs or funding in their home state? Absolutely.

As such, the Senate could become a stumbling block in President Barack Obama's plans to reduce the U.S. nuclear arsenal and strategic triad of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), and strategic bombers. While past treaties such as START I and SORT were approved overwhelmingly by the Senate, those agreements didn't alter the triad's fundamental configuration. Warheads and delivery vehicles were retired, but the constellation of bases and supporting defense contractors, though reduced, remained in place. The force posture being considered by the Obama administration, however, challenges the long-standing status quo and therefore, threatens the local interests of many senators.

With a two-thirds Senate majority of 67 votes needed for approval, treaties in the 111th Congress must not only attract support from all 60 caucusing Democratic senators, they must also win affirmation from at least seven Republicans. Based on the guidelines laid out by Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, the upcoming START follow-on shouldn't be hindered by the 67-vote threshold. But what happens after the next round of negotiations, when warhead numbers will really begin to be lowered? Pushing deeper nuclear reductions through the Senate will be extraordinarily difficult and will require a Herculean political effort from the White House.

A look at exactly what the administration is up against:

ICBMs. The U.S. ICBM force currently consists of 450 Minuteman III single-warhead missiles equally apportioned between three air force bases: Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana, Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota, and Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming, Nebraska, and Colorado. The three missile bases are supported by additional military sites involved in the ICBM mission, including Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska, Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico, and Hill Air Force Base in Utah. These bases assist with everything from testing to command and control.

ICBM modernization is performed by defense contractors at locations around the country. The propulsion replacement, guidance replacement, and safety enhanced reentry vehicle programs, for example, employ Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Honeywell employees in Ohio, Texas, Arizona, Utah, California, Florida, Maryland, and Pennsylvania.

Senators representing the states where ICBMs are based--Montana, North Dakota, Wyoming, Colorado, and Nebraska--and the states prominently involved in support roles, particularly Utah, are most likely to object to any arms control agreement that reduces the U.S. ICBM force below the current level of 450 missiles. Most of these lawmakers already work together closely through the Senate ICBM Coalition, which includes Democratic Montana Senators Max Baucus and Jon Tester, Democratic North Dakota Senators Kent Conrad and Byron Dorgan, Republican Wyoming Senators Mike Enzi and John Barrasso, and Republican Utah Senators Orrin Hatch and Bob Bennett. Some of these senators previously lobbied unsuccessfully to stop the reduction of the ICBM force from 500 to 450 as mandated by the 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review.

This year, the Senate ICBM Coalition sent a letter to the White House opposing ICBM reductions. "We are certainly not opposed to renewal of START or deeper, mutually verifiable, negotiated arms control agreements," it stated. "But we feel very strongly that the ICBM force dramatically decreases the risk of nuclear war by providing a stabilizing constant in our nuclear posture, and that it must be maintained at its current levels as an essential part of our nation's nuclear force."

Hatch and Bennett also have worked legislatively to ensure that there isn't a decrease in funding or political support for ICBMs, attaching an amendment to the fiscal year 2010 Defense Authorization Bill that requires the Pentagon to draft a long-term plan for sustaining the ability to manufacture solid rocket ICBM motors. Not surprisingly, Utah's largest defense contractor, ATK, produces the motors.

This has serious implications for future U.S.-Russian relations. Since Russia is retiring its strategic delivery vehicles and not replacing them on a one-to-one basis, the entire Russian strategic force could sink below 400 delivery vehicles by 2016. (See "START Follow-on: What SORT of Agreement.") In other words, the U.S. ICBM force, if not reduced, might be larger than the entire Russian strategic triad in the very near future, more than likely encouraging Russia to deploy more missiles with multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle warheads in order to compensate for U.S. superiority in delivery vehicles.

SLBMs. The U.S. SLBM force is comprised of 14 Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines: eight subs based in Bangor, Washington, assigned to the Pacific Ocean; and six subs based in Kings Bay, Georgia, assigned to the Atlantic Ocean. Two subs are normally in overhaul, so the Pacific-to-Atlantic deployment ratio is typically seven to five. (See the March/April 2009 Nuclear Notebook.) Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines regularly visit other forward ports so that they can train for replenishment and refit in the event their home ports are destroyed during wartime. In the United States, these forward ports include Seward, Alaska; San Diego, California; Pearl Harbor, Hawaii; Mayport, Florida; and Astoria, Oregon. (See "U.S. Strategic Submarine Patrols Continue at Near Cold War Tempo.")

Because of the decision to extend the service life of Ohio-class submarines, an updated variant of the Trident D5 SLBM carried by the Ohio is currently being developed. The Obama administration requested $1.1 billion in fiscal year 2010 for 24 upgraded Trident missiles and related life-extension programs. Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Sunnyvale, California, is the prime contractor for the Trident; it employs approximately 3,000 workers nationwide, primarily in California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, New York, and Washington.

Democratic Washington Senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell and Republican Georgia Senators Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson will fight to protect the ballistic missile submarines that are homeported in their states. Democratic California Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer may hesitate about cutting back on Trident missile modernization in Sunnyvale, especially after Lockheed Space Systems already cut 800 jobs in August.

In addition, senators with a parochial interest in submarine construction may oppose any arms control treaty that would reduce the SLBM force because such an agreement might eliminate the rationale for building the next-generation ballistic missile submarine (SSBN-X) that's slated to replace the Ohio-class. Funds already are being appropriated for development of the SSBN-X, which is scheduled to begin construction in 2019.

There are only two shipyards in the United States that build nuclear-powered submarines: General Dynamics Electric Boat in Groton, Connecticut, and Quonset Point, Rhode Island; and Northrop Grumman Newport News in Newport News, Virginia. Overhaul work on the subs is performed at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard near the border of New Hampshire and Maine, and at Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth, Virginia. Supplied by a legion of subcontractors throughout the country, these five shipyards directly employ more than 40,000 people in Connecticut, Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Virginia, and surrounding states. Lawmakers from these states, such as Connecticut Senators Christopher Dodd, a Democrat, and Joseph Lieberman, an Independent, have already spoken out publicly about the importance of maintaining the submarine industrial base.

Bombers. The U.S. Air Force strategic bomber force currently is made up of 113 aircraft: 19 B-2s based at Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri; 64 B-52s based at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana; 27 B-52s based at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota; and three test aircraft (one B-2 and two B-52s) based at Edwards Air Force Base in California. B-2 modernization takes place at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. Northrop Grumman and its affiliated subcontractors perform support work on the system in locations throughout the country, including in El Segundo and Palmdale, California.

The air force has tried for years to cut the B-52 fleet, but Congress has consistently rebuffed the effort. Under current law, the air force must maintain at least 76 B-52s over the next decade. In its quest to keep the aircraft reliable, the air force and Congress have initiated a suite of modernization programs, many of which are developed by Boeing at its facility in Wichita, Kansas, and housed at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Modernization work on the B-52's nuclear-capable air-launched cruise missile, which the air force wants to replace with the enhanced cruise missile, also is completed at Tinker Air Force Base.

Besides involvement in basing and maintaining the current bomber force, another concern for lawmakers will be the development and construction of a nuclear-capable manned next-generation bomber (B-X) that the air force originally wanted to become operational by 2018. Analysts believe that as many as 100 B-Xs ultimately might be purchased.

After press reports earlier this year suggested that the B-X might be delayed or terminated altogether, a handful of senators sent a letter to President Obama that preemptively denounced such a decision. "We believe termination of the next generation bomber would do tremendous damage to our nation's future ability to project power abroad," it stated. Signatories included South Dakota Senators John Thune (Republican) and Tim Johnson (Democrat), Louisiana Senators Mary Landrieu (Democrat) and David Vitter (Republican), and Texas Senators Kay Bailey Hutchison (Republican) and John Cornyn (Republican). Not surprisingly, Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota, Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, and Dyess Air Force Base in Texas are the leading contenders to host the B-X.

The senators' fears were realized in May when the Obama administration confirmed that it intended to terminate the B-X because "the current fleet is performing well" and "current aircraft will be able to meet the threats expected in the foreseeable future." Led by Thune, supporters of the B-X fought to reverse the cancellation. They managed to insert language into the Senate's version of the fiscal year 2010 Defense Authorization Bill stating, "It is the policy of the United States to support a development program for next generation bomber aircraft technologies." Expressing anxiety that arms control agreements negotiated by the Obama administration might downsize the U.S. strategic bomber fleet, Thune remarked in July, "I have an additional concern that by significantly reducing our strategic delivery vehicles, we may lose the bomber leg of our nuclear triad."

Though the fate of the B-X is unclear, discussions already are taking place about the next-next-generation bomber (i.e., the successor to the B-X) that may become operational sometime in the mid- to late-2030s. If the orchestrated response of B-X advocates this year is any indication, the next-next-generation bomber will possess a cadre of dedicated patrons on Capitol Hill.

Counting the key states listed above leads to an inescapable verdict: At least 20 states derive significant economic benefits from the U.S. strategic triad. States that contain nuclear fuel or warhead maintenance facilities, though not considered here, also could be added to the list. If both senators from all 20 key states adhere to traditional congressional behavior and vote purely on local interest, at least 40 senators could oppose an arms control agreement negotiated by the Obama administration. This total would be enough to derail any treaty in the Senate, especially if senators decide to work together in a 40-vote bloc to protect all three legs of the triad. If these lawmakers were joined by Republicans ideologically opposed to arms control, any treaty would be doomed.

To overcome these political facts of life, there are two things the Obama administration must do. First and foremost, the administration must consult constantly with senators from key states. If senators feel that the White House is legitimately taking their viewpoints into account during treaty negotiations, they are much more likely to support the final product. Second, the administration must relentlessly reiterate that the future of the planet is at stake. The more forcefully President Obama makes the case that nuclear weapon reductions are bigger than any one lawmaker's narrow local interests, the better his chances of winning Senate approval.

Congressional commitment to local priorities is frustrating when trying to achieve national objectives. But the reality for elected officials is that they were chosen by a geographically limited group of people to represent that group's interests in Washington. While the military-industrial complex isn't easily defeated, the recent shutdown of the previously impossible-to-kill F-22 Raptor program proves that it can happen. The question, as with most things in politics, is whether or not the Obama administration is prepared to spend the political capital necessary to do so.