05/10/2012 - 21:33

The politics of reduction

Kingston Reif

Kingston Reif

Reif is the director of nuclear nonproliferation at the...

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One of the perks of being a Republican president in the United States is the freedom to make drastic changes to US nuclear posture while Democratic presidents are forced to travel a much tougher road, often in the pursuit of far less ambitious goals. This pattern has been ongoing since the end of the Cold War and sadly continues unabated today. On May 9, the House Armed Services Committee wrote the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act, and Republican leaders used their majority to pass legislative provisions that will restrict and perhaps even block the Pentagon's ability to implement the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) and prevent the president and senior military leaders from making future changes to the size and structure of the US nuclear arsenal. According to Republican Strategic Force Subcommittee Chairman Michael Turner, "It’s not even clear that the unilateral reductions to U.S. nuclear forces required by the New START are in the interest of our national security. ... The president’s most recent budget, however, abandons the nuclear modernization funding he promised. This can only be described as bait and switch. The Senate has been deceived."

This overblown bluster, however, ignores a few basic realities: Spending on nuclear weapons has increased dramatically under President Obama, constraints on New START would restrict the military from fielding the most capable force possible, fewer weapons won't obviate deterrence, and preventing future nuclear force reductions would lock in an excessively large nuclear arsenal ill-suited to the current terrorist threat and to the current economic environment.

A history of selective obstruction. Following the fall of the Soviet Union, President George H.W. Bush announced, among many other sweeping changes, that the United States would unilaterally and dramatically reduce its arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons; the move led the Soviet Union, and later Russia, to take similar steps. Bush also completed negotiations begun by the Reagan administration on START I and initiated negotiations on and signed START II. On October 1, 1992, a mere three and a half months after the final protocol to the treaty was submitted to the Senate, 93 senators gave their advice and consent to START I. In total, the Bush administration reduced the size of the US nuclear arsenal by a staggering near 50 percent during just four years in office.

While Republicans had few qualms with the steps taken by Bush, they threw up numerous roadblocks to President Clinton's plans to continue in a similar vein. Then-Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Jesse Helms delayed a vote on START II for seven months in 1995 while he haggled with the administration over his desire to reorganize the State Department. And, in 1999, the Senate rejected the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, making it the first major security-related treaty to be defeated since the Treaty of Versailles. To make matters worse, the Republican-controlled Congress included a provision in the 1998 defense bill that prevented the Clinton administration from reducing the size of the US nuclear arsenal below the limits set in START I. This meant forcing the Navy and the Air Force to spend money they didn't want to spend in order to hang on to nuclear delivery systems -- including four Trident submarines and 50 Peacekeeper missiles -- that they no longer needed.

While the provision effectively barred Clinton from making reductions, it was removed without Republican opposition in the 2002 defense bill -- in part to accommodate President George W. Bush's desire to unilaterally eliminate the Peacekeeper missiles and the Trident submarines from the nuclear force. From 2001 to 2009, President Bush, like his father, cut the total nuclear stockpile by approximately 50 percent. Bush was initially prepared to make unilateral reductions to the deployed arsenal, but he was encouraged by Secretary of State Colin Powell and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to codify reductions in a treaty with Russia, which he did in 2002 in the form of the Moscow Treaty. The Senate approved the treaty in 2003 by a vote of 95-0.

History repeats itself. Enter President Barack Obama, a Democrat, who in March 2010 completed negotiations with Russia on New START, which enshrined deployed strategic forces levels similar to those of the Moscow Treaty and included rigorous verification provisions. Despite New START's substantive merits, the eight-month-long campaign to win the Senate was in doubt up until the treaty was finally approved in December 2010.

Not long after New START entered into force in 2011, the House passed a defense bill authored by Representative Turner. The bill contained limitations that would have delayed implementation of the treaty if funding for either the nuclear weapons activities at the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) or the strategic delivery system modernization at the Pentagon did not meet the levels specified in what is known as the Section 1251 report, a ten-year funding plan crafted by the administration with an eye toward reaching an agreement on New START. The report outlines $88 billion in spending on NNSA weapons activities and $125 billion to sustain US nuclear delivery systems between 2012 and 2021.

While Senate Democrats blocked inclusion of these harmful provisions in the final bill, House Republicans included similar constraints in this year's bill, citing the fact that the administration's 2013 budget request for nuclear weapons programs is still less than called for by the Section 1251 report. Their legislation adds more than $320 million in spending on the nuclear weapons complex and seeks to reverse the administration's five-year deferral of construction of the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility, the new plutonium facility scheduled to be built at Los Alamos. It also takes aim at an ongoing government study of nuclear deterrence requirements that could pave the way for reductions below New START levels. As of this writing, the president has yet to make a decision on new nuclear guidance and force levels, but already Republicans are seeking to block any outcome that could lead to a smaller arsenal.

Simply put: These Republican provisions will undermine US national and economic security.

Constraints on New START implementation will infringe on the Pentagon's ability to implement the treaty in the most cost-effective manner, perhaps even leading the United States to miss the treaty's 2018 implementation deadline, which could cause Russia to rethink its own commitment to the treaty. Limitations requiring the United States to maintain no fewer than the New START level of 1,550 deployed warheads in perpetuity is equally counterproductive; a credible deterrent can be maintained with a much smaller arsenal.

Moreover, holding New START implementation and further reductions hostage to increased spending for nuclear weapons programs ignores the current economic reality. The 1251 report was crafted before Congress approved the bipartisan Budget Control Act, which requires reductions in the projected growth of defense spending. Even with these budget limitations, the 2013 budget request for NNSA weapons activities is an increase of $363 million, or 5 percent, above last year's level. The Obama administration pledged to sustain the capabilities necessary to maintain the health of the nuclear stockpile and it is vigorously doing so. In fact, the cuts to weapons activities that the Republicans are now decrying not only began before the Budget Control Act was even negotiated; they were spearheaded by the Republican-led House.

House Armed Services Committee Republicans ignored the Budget Control Act constraints when increasing nuclear weapons spending, even though the Pentagon and the NNSA argue that this spending is unaffordable, would require cuts to other more relevant defense programs, and is not even necessary since alternatives are available. Current Republican efforts to rein in the Obama administration's nuclear arms reduction agenda are eerily consistent with previous efforts to do so. Then and now, partisan obstructionism threatens to prevent the common sense steps necessary to putting America's nuclear posture on a post-Cold War, post-9/11 footing.