Why is the president letting America's nukes rust?
In his April 8 article on FP, "Time to Face Facts," Secretary of State John Kerry observed how "in the Senate, we clawed our way to ratification [of the New START Treaty] with 71 votes, a big bipartisan statement that the arms control and nonproliferation consensus could hold together even in a polarized political culture."
The secretary fails to mention, however, that the reason he, as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, was able to "claw" together enough votes to secure ratification is that President Obama and the Senate agreed to a 10-year effort to modernize our aging nuclear weapons complex and our nuclear delivery systems. It was this consensus on the link between nuclear modernization and nuclear force reductions that made New START ratification possible — not a consensus on arms control, as Secretary Kerry suggests.
In fact, the connection between nuclear modernization and nuclear stockpile reductions pre-dates the New START debate: It was advocated in 2009 by the Strategic Posture Commission led by William Perry and James Schlesinger, and it was affirmed by the president’s 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, which noted that "these investments are essential to facilitating reductions while sustaining deterrence under New START and beyond."
Regrettably, the joint commitment to nuclear modernization, codified by the New START resolution of ratification and the president’s message to the Senate on New START, is starting to dissolve due to a combination of budget pressures, new members of Congress who are unfamiliar with the state of our arsenal and the importance of maintaining a safe and credible deterrent, and a lack of leadership by the president.
To be sure, the president got off to a good start when he requested full funding for the weapons activities conducted by the National Nuclear Security Administration in his FY 2012 budget, yet he failed to fight for his request when congressional appropriators reduced that amount by $400 million. The following year, the president requested some $370 million less than promised for weapons activities, and deferred by at least five years the start of construction of a plutonium-handling facility in Los Alamos. His own Nuclear Posture Review had recommended that facility be operational by 2021, and the president had committed to that in his message to the Senate. To compound matters, we are told NNSA will cut another $600 million from weapons activities this year to accommodate the sequester, and various other promised modernization projects have been significantly postponed.
Development of a new nuclear submarine and the planned replacement for the nuclear air-launched cruise missile has been delayed by at least two years. We don’t know if the next generation of strategic bomber will be qualified for nuclear missions at the outset, if ever. No decision has been made to replace the Minuteman ICBM. The life extension programs for the B-61 nuclear bomb and the W-78 and W-88 nuclear warheads have slipped by at least two years.
Secretary Kerry may argue, as he did during his confirmation hearing, that the administration has honored the spirit of its modernization commitments and reversed the decline in funding for the nuclear enterprise in his first term. That might be true, but the fact remains that we are increasingly short of what the executive and legislative branches agreed was necessary for New START. If the Senate believed we would be in this position today, it is unlikely to have approved the treaty in December 2010.
As the gap between what was promised for modernization and what is provided continues to grow, it becomes increasingly difficult to achieve the responsive nuclear infrastructure that even the president acknowledges is essential for nuclear reductions and the continuing credibility of our nuclear deterrent.