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Creating roadblocks to cuts in nuclear arms

by Walter Pincus

The Washington Post

Not that we need one, but the week before last offered another example of congressional dysfunction, this time on defense. During a hearing on the fiscal 2014 Defense Department budget, Rep. Mike D. Rogers, an Alabama Republican, chairman of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, told Pentagon officials that his panel would not approve $75 million for next year to implement the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) — until it gets a report on what the makeup of the strategic nuclear forces will be in February 2018.

That’s when the deployed U.S. strategic nuclear force must be down to 1,550 warheads, from 2,200, and 700 delivery systems.

The Rogers subcommittee is set to mark up the fiscal 2014 defense authorization bill at 10:30 a.m. on Wednesday of this week.

Madelyn R. Creedon, assistant secretary of defense for global strategic affairs, told Rogers the decision “on what exactly the New START force structure will look like will be made at the end of this calendar year” — months after Rogers and his subcommittee would normally have acted on the bill and the measure would have passed Congress.

Rogers told Creedon, “It’s difficult for this committee to evaluate whether or not that money [the $75 million] is needed, given that we’re still waiting on the report … on how New START will be implemented.”

He said some money being sought would pay for Air Force environmental-impact studies on closing ICBM sites to meet the new warhead levels.

Creedon said the Defense Department is reviewing various options and that requires the Air Force and other services “doing the whole range of studies that would allow them to implement the various decisions when there is a decision.”

She also noted that some of the $75 million is to be spent dismantling delivery systems that had been retired but that would be counted under START.

Another part would go to paying for the inspection regime set up by the pact, because the United States and Russia are undertaking the inspections, and, Creedon said, “funding these inspections is hugely important” for planning future U.S. deployment.

Rogers was not moved. “We appreciate your thoughtful preparation,” he said, but he added, “This committee is not going to authorize money until we get the report.”

Rogers said he would also hold up the $75 million if he did not get a “personal commitment” from President Barack Obama that “he will not seek reductions that circumvent the treaty or the congressional authorization process.”

The hearing covered the future of this nation’s entire nuclear weapons enterprise.

Are there going to be further reductions in nuclear weapons?

That is being explored, Creedon said. “We believe that there is an opportunity for future reductions. Exactly the how and the numbers and the context is something that we still need to work on,” she said.

Is there a rule of thumb for future numbers?

Air Force Gen. C. Robert Kehler, commander of the U.S. Strategic Command, told the Rogers panel, “We can accomplish our objectives with the New START force,” the 1,550 warheads and 700 delivery systems set for 2018. “Beyond that, I think Stratcom has been participating in a series of reviews to take a look at what a future arms control structure might look like based upon various strategic approaches.”

In his view “it’s important for us to not have exact numeric parity with the Russians, but I think we need to have relative approximation of that parity … [in] technical capability and capacity as well.”

Will treaty reductions do away with one leg of the triad, the bombers and submarine-based and land-based ICBMs that make up the nuclear delivery system?

Creedon did not confirm that any of the studies were reviewing elimination of a leg of the triad. But she said, “It would be a reasonable option to look at, even though it’s completely contrary to the department’s policy and to the NPR [2010 Nuclear Posture Review], which says maintain a triad.”

Kehler put to bed any idea that the triad was in danger. “I continue to support a triad,” he said, explaining, “It does in fact provide the best blend of survivability and flexibility and responsiveness.”

How far into the future does the U.S. plan for its nuclear weapons program go?

At least through 2028, John Harvey, principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for nuclear programs, told the Rogers subcommittee. The Pentagon and the Energy Department’s National Nuclear Security Administration, which runs the nuclear warhead and bomb building complex, has a 25-year baseline plan to “synchronize schedules for warhead life-extension programs, modern delivery platforms that carry those warheads, and initial operations for supporting infrastructure.”

That should take care of those who claim Obama is seeking to do away with nuclear weapons based on his 2009 Prague speech when he pledged “America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.”

What his critics always leave out is what he said after that applause line.

“I’m not naive. This goal will not be reached quickly — perhaps not in my lifetime.”

I doubt it will be reached in any of our lifetimes. But legislators, such as Rogers, continue to build little roadblocks for any Obama attempt to lower nuclear arms numbers, even when it comes to a signed treaty.

Walter Pincus reports on intelligence, defense and foreign policy for The Washingon Post and writes the Fine Print column.