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Jonathan McLaughlin’s Blog

A False Connection: New START and nuclear weapons complex modernization

Jonathan McLaughlin

Posted May 14, 2012

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Last week the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) marked up the FY13 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). The bill is scheduled to be debated on the House floor this week. HASC’s version of NDAA provides $554 billion for “function 050” defense spending in FY13, $4 billion above the President’s request and $8 billion above the limits imposed by the Budget Control Act (BCA). Within this category it also increases funding for weapons activities executed by the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), the quasi-independent unit within the Department of Energy (DOE) that manages the U.S. nuclear weapons program, to $7.9 billion. This sum represents a $323 million increase above levels provided by the House and Senate Appropriations Committee for the NNSA.

In addition, the Committee added a series of problematic amendments that undermine the goals of reducing the deficit and reducing our reliance on nuclear weapons in national security. The most egregious amendments were introduced by Rep. Michael Turner (R-OH), Chairman of HASC’s Strategic Forces Subcommittee. He introduced two amendments (#46 and #47), which were later approved, designed to reverse President Obama’s decision to defer by five years the construction of the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility (CMRR-NF) at Los Alamos. Amendment #46 requires the construction of the CMRR by 2024, authorizing $160 million in prior-year funds to continue design of the facility. Amendment #47 authorizes the re-categorization of CMRR-NF construction, as well as construction of the Uranium Processing Facility (UPF) at the Y-12 Complex in Tennessee, as Pentagon military construction projects. Both are currently funded by the NNSA.

Rep. Turner also introduced amendment #141, which was approved, on the strategic force posture of the United States. This amendment is apparently identical to H.R. 4178, a resolution he introduced in March. The main objective of this amendment is to prevent the implementation of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) if funding for NNSA’s stockpile and complex modernization efforts, as well the Department of Defense’s (DoD) strategic delivery system modernization, do not meet the specific levels outlined in the Update to the Section 1251 Report to the FY10 National Defense Authorization Act. It also prohibits any further reductions or changes to U.S. nuclear posture unless these commitments are met.

While HASC’s allocations are well above what NNSA and Pentagon officials say is necessary to ensure the reliability of our deterrent, they reflect the common Republican complaint that President Obama’s FY13 budget proposal fails to adequately fund efforts for the modernization of the nuclear weapons stockpile and the complex that supports it. And once again, modernization proponents on the Hill are inappropriately linking this issue with New START.

The HASC mark-up was preceded last month by a letter from 12 Freshmen Republican Senators to President Obama, claiming that he is failing to honor his commitment to modernize the nuclear weapons complex, citing inadequate funding for this endeavor in the FY13 budget request. They then use this alleged failure as an excuse to threaten to block implementation of New START. “A failure to honor past modernization commitments will impact our willingness to support New START implementation and any future treaties related to our nuclear weapons complex.” It’s the same connection between modernization and New START drawn by many Republican Senators during the treaty ratification debate in late 2010.

But the claim that the President is failing to uphold his commitment to modernization is curious when one actually looks at his FY13 budget proposal. The Administration requests $11.536 billion for the NNSA, a 5% increase over FY12 enacted. This sum makes up 43% of the Administration’s request for the DOE. Of this $11.536 billion total, $7.577 billion is for weapons activities (which itself is 27.9% of the total request for the DOE), a 5% increase over FY12 enacted. Funding for NNSA weapons activities is projected to increase by an average of 2% each year out to FY17.

In other words, over a quarter of the DOE’s budget, an agency assigned with tasks such as developing and deploying clean energy technologies and ensuring energy security, is projected to be set aside for the maintenance and improvement of the nuclear weapons stockpile and complex. This allocation is part of a massive modernization effort. Aside from the CMRR-NF, which still has a questionable future despite the efforts of its supporters on the HASC, specific NNSA modernization undertakings include Life Extension Programs (LEP) for three separate strategic warheads (the W76, W78, and W88) as well as the B61 tactical warhead, and the construction of the UPF, which will fabricate new highly-enriched uranium and lithium-deuteride components for the thermonuclear secondary stage of nuclear weapons. The Administration is in fact requesting $340 million for UPF in FY13, more than double the amount it received in FY12 enacted.

In parallel with the NNSA modernization campaign, the Pentagon is pursuing modernization of all three legs of our triad of strategic delivery vehicles, with lifetimes for certain systems extending into the 2080s. These long-term investments underscore the Administration’s commitment to stockpile and complex modernization. There is no basis for the GOP claim that the White House is “fail[ing] to honor past modernization commitments.” In fact, there is a strong argument to be made that proposed funding for weapons activities should be reallocated to other purposes within the DOE, such as clean energy deployment or NNSA nonproliferation efforts.

It is true that the $7.577 billion requested for FY13 for weapons activities is $373 million (4%) less than originally planned in the Update to the Section 1251 Report. But this modest decrease is due to the constraints imposed by the BCA, a bill which was passed nearly a year after the issuing of the Section 1251 Update with strong bipartisan support in Congress. The BCA caps FY13 security spending, including NNSA funding, at $546 billion. As a result, the Pentagon’s FY13 request is $5.2 billion below FY12 enacted levels.

Given this context, NNSA’s funding increase for weapons programs is sufficient and quite generous, as numerous government officials have noted. NNSA Administrator Tom D’Agostino stated confidently at a hearing in February that the FY13 request “fully meets the requirements” for stockpile maintenance. Senator Ben Nelson (D-NE) commented in March that falling “4 percent short of the [2010-derived] target is reasonable given the fiscal reality facing us today." And last month Air Force Gen. Robert Kehler, Commander of the U.S. Strategic Command, testified before the Strategic Forces Subcommittee that he was “extremely confident” that our current deployed force is “safe, secure, and effective.” These comments from leading government experts underscore that the modest BCA-imposed reductions do not impair NNSA modernization objectives.  

In their letter Senate Republicans mention the CMRR-NF facility specifically, claiming that it “is critical to the credibility of our nation’s nuclear stockpile.” As mentioned earlier, the Administration decided to defer construction of this facility by five years and propose zero funding for it in FY13, which could ultimately result in its termination. Both the House and Senate Appropriations Committees upheld the decision not to fund CMRR-NF in FY13. One of the primary tasks of this facility would have been to quadruple the production capacity for plutonium pits for nuclear weapons from the current rate of 20 up to 80. But a 2006 study by the JASON Defense Advisory Panel found that our existing stockpile of over 14,000 plutonium pits has a lifetime of 85 years and will be reliable for the next half century. Aside from expanded pit production, the rest of the functions that would be carried out at the proposed CMRR-NF can be executed at existing facilities.

This situation led Bob Peurifoy, former Vice President of the Sandia National Laboratories, to comment in a 2010 Affidavit that this facility won’t be needed to maintain our deterrent for “decades to come.” Furthermore, projected costs for CMRR-NF have soared from less than $400 million in 2001 to close to $6 billion today. Given its highly questionable mission and skyrocketing costs, deferring this facility by five years is an ideal way to trim defense spending to within the parameters of the BCA cap. It won’t be needed for decades, if ever. Unfortunately, the HASC doesn’t seem persuaded by this argument, and restored $160 million in funding for CMRR-NF. For strategic and budgetary reasons, this funding should be removed as the NDAA moves through Congress.    

But aside from this hair splitting over modernization appropriation levels, there is a bigger, more fundamental problem with the Republican argument: as I’ve pointed out before, there is little if any connection between New START and plans for stockpile/complex modernization. Once we bring the size of our deployed arsenal within the treaty limits by 2018, we will still have the most advanced weapons complex and one of the largest weapons stockpiles in the world. Our only rival in this field for the foreseeable future is Russia, which is also subject to New START. The treaty’s modest reductions and inspection regime do not affect the complex one way or the other. What matters in arms reduction is whether or not stable nuclear deterrence is preserved, and with New START it is. The treaty’s main function is to strengthen national security by setting limits on Russia’s deployed arsenal and allowing our defense officials vital access to Russia’s deployed nuclear weapon systems to verify compliance with the treaty’s limits through data exchanges and on-site inspections. These measures help to reduce the mutual distrust that fed the exaggerated threat assessments behind the spiraling arms race of the Cold War era.  

And its’ implementation so far has been successful. Earlier this year, Assistant Secretary of State Rose Gottemoeller, who negotiated the treaty with the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Security and Disarmament Director Anatoly Antonov, delivered a one-year progress report on New START implementation. She indicated that during the first year the U.S. and Russia performed 18 on-site inspections, the maximum allowed under the treaty, and exchanged approximately1800 notifications pertaining to weapons dispositions, deployments, and repairs. Thanks to New START, we now have the ability to constantly monitor Russia’s strategic forces, as they do ours. Such reciprocity builds confidence and increases predictability.

Gottemoeller further indicated that the next round of reductions will involve non-deployed strategic and tactical nuclear weapons, categories that Washington has wanted to include in negotiations for a long time. The opportunity to include these weapons in the U.S.-Russian bilateral arms control process would still be out of reach were it not for the progress made under New START. Reaching an agreement on these categories of weapons is still far from certain, but at least now it’s possible. For these reasons, Gottemoeller concluded that New START has been a success. 

To undermine this treaty’s implementation now, as many Congressional Republicans are threatening to do, risks undoing this progress. And the fact of the matter is that the “reset” with Moscow remains fragile. Russian officials have repeatedly threatened in recent months to withdraw from New START if their concerns regarding U.S. missile defense plans are not addressed. Reaching an agreement on this issue will be difficult enough. To add the prospect of halting treaty implementation to secure a little extra money for the weapons complex would almost certainly derail what little progress has been made. It’s irresponsible, unnecessary, and if the past is prologue, even dangerous. New START provides the foundation for the next round of U.S.-Russian arms control agreements. From there, we may be able to include other categories of weapons and even other nations, such as China, into legally binding arms control agreements. If arms control skeptics in the Senate are concerned that further reductions beyond New START undermine our deterrent, then the ratification debate on these future treaties would be the time to make that case. But getting these new categories of weapons on the table and including other nations in the arms control process have been national security priorities for a long time. To threaten these goals in order to pour even more money into the nuclear weapons complex detracts from our national security. New START should be a vital component to reducing the threat posed by nuclear weapons, not a bargaining chip in the budget process.  


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