A group of lawmakers from states that host strategic nuclear missiles are concerned the Pentagon could be studying closing down some of the weapon silos.
In the last day, multiple letters from both chambers of Congress have been sent to U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, demanding to know whether his department is violating recent federal law by conducting environmental studies related to the country's force of underground-based intercontinental ballistic missiles.
"We write to make very clear our strenuous opposition to any attempt by the Department of Defense to circumvent existing law to proceed with an Environmental Impact Study or an Environmental Assessment on the elimination of Minuteman 3 silos," reads one bipartisan letter from Senators Jon Tester (D-Mont.), John Hoeven (R-N.D.), Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) and John Walsh (D-Mont.).
Congress in its omnibus fiscal 2014 spending law has forbidden the Pentagon from using appropriated funds "to conduct any environmental impact analysis related to Minuteman 3 silos that contain a missile."
"If the Defense Department is in fact pursuing such a course, we demand the legal justification for how it could so directly contradict the letter of the law and the repeatedly stated will of Congress," the four senators said.
The Pentagon did not return requests for comment by press time on whether it was pursuing environmental studies of shutting down the silos. It is not clear exactly what made the lawmakers believe the assessments were taking place, though Capitol Hill aides on Thursday told the Great Falls Tribune that House Armed Services Committee staff had heard the Air Force was beginning the studies.
The U.S. Air Force presently deploys roughly 450 nuclear-tipped strategic missiles in silos split evenly among three states: Montana, North Dakota and Wyoming. Though the senators and representatives from those states are territorial of the land-based missile mission, a draw-down to no more than 420 of the weapons is in the offing; it is only a matter of when.
The New START accord requires both the United States and Russia by 2018 to each cap their arsenals of strategic delivery vehicles -- encompassing heavy bombers, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and silo-based missiles -- at 700 apiece, with an additional 100 systems allowed in reserve by each side.
The Pentagon has yet to start implementing substantial reductions to its strategic delivery force. However, when they begin, they are expected to happen first in the Ohio-class submarine fleet, followed by the elimination of some nuclear-capable aircraft and ending with the ground-based missiles.
"We strongly believe maintaining our current ICBM capability is vital to promoting peace and keeping our country and allies safe from current and emerging threats," reads a letter sent to the Pentagon on Thursday by Representatives Steve Daines (R-Mont.), Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.), Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) and Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.). "We are also concerned that beginning an ICBM environmental assessment could significantly damage the morale of airmen working on this crucial mission."
The enlisted crews and officers charged with operating the Air Force's Minuteman 3 arsenal in recent months have come under much public scrutiny, amid a move to sideline more than 90 launch control officers who were implicated in a probe into widespread-cheating on routine missile-firing certification exams. There were also recent revelations about an investigation into drug possession by some officers at Global Strike Command, which oversees missile and nuclear bomber operations.