WASHINGTON -- U.S. House lawmakers voted last week to prevent the United States from scaling down its fielded strategic nuclear arsenal to meet the terms of a 2-year-old treaty with Russia, citing a failure by Obama officials to provide specifics required by February 2012 on how they would carry out the cuts.
The sought-after plans are still up in the air, though, and could remain so for more than a year, a Defense Department spokeswoman told Global Security Newswire on Thursday. The congressional demand to provide the data appeared in prior-year funding legislation that became law.
Language attached to the House version of a new defense appropriations bill would defund any long-range nuclear force reductions mandated under the New START agreement until the Pentagon informs Congress what quantities of nuclear-armed missiles and bombers it would maintain once the treaty is fully implemented. Details about the type and quantity of warheads that would go onto each weapon are also to be furnished to Capitol Hill.
Other details required in the so-called “1042” report -- named for the section of the Fiscal 2012 National Defense Appropriations Act in which it was mandated -- include how much the cuts are expected to cost, a schedule for carrying them out and how many nuclear warheads would remain in storage once the reductions are complete.
The White House has “refused” to submit the document, according to House Appropriations Strategic Forces Subcommittee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Ala.).
“This amendment will force the president to follow the law and hold him accountable if he expects one dime of the American people’s money to be appropriated,” he said in floor remarks on July 23.
In a Thursday e-mail, Pentagon spokeswoman Cynthia Smith said her department would send the required details “90 days after a decision on reductions in U.S forces is made.”
“This decision is expected to be finalized before October 2014,” Smith said. Preparing details on the force reductions over the coming budget cycle, she added, would give planners the “flexibility” to “meet deterrence requirements.”
Officials have "not made all the final decisions on force structure that are going to be necessary" by February 2018, when the nuclear force caps imposed by New START become binding, U.S. Strategic Command head Gen. Robert Kehler told a Capitol Hill breakfast gathering last week.
Once implemented, the treaty would bar Russia and the United States from maintaining more than fielded 1,550 warheads on their long-range missiles and bombers. Each nation could keep 700 deployed nuclear-weapon delivery vehicles, with up to 100 more that are not fielded.
“We’re reserving our own flexibility here," Kehler said. "We have probably almost another year before we have to make the final decisions on force structure."
One issue expert opined that Rogers’ explanation for the funding freeze should not be taken at face value.
“The Republican leadership of the House Armed Services Committee has been on a mission to block implementation of New START since the treaty entered into force,” Kingston Reif, nuclear nonproliferation director for the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation, said in an e-mailed response to questions.
Separate budget legislation approved by the House includes a Rogers-authored provision linking arsenal-reduction funds to delivery of the New START details report. The chamber's version of the fiscal 2014 defense authorization bill additionally requires a presidential commitment to obtain Senate approval before carrying out any nuclear force reductions beyond those required by New START.
The Senate is drafting its own defense appropriations language, and Reif said the proposed nuclear reduction spending freeze has “no” chance of surviving scrutiny by the upper chamber. House lawmakers placed similar provisions in appropriations legislation for the last two budget years, but those measures were “opposed by the Senate and not included in the final version” of the bills, he said.
However, a Heritage Foundation research fellow said senators have a special stake in ensuring the president follows through on nuclear arms certifications he made in exchange for their approval of New START. The treaty went into effect in February 2011 after receiving Senate ratification.
Commitments by the president “are not being honored at this point in time [and] that draws into legal and political question the validity of the treaty,” Baker Spring told Global Security Newswire in a Wednesday interview. “Congress has an interest in … making it clear to the president that the certifications that he made are substantive commitments.”
Republicans have accused Obama of breaking a 2010 pledge -- made in the effort to obtain sufficient GOP support for New START ratification -- to spend $85 billion over a decade to modernize the U.S. nuclear arsenal and infrastructure.
Rogers’ push for specifics on treaty implementation is well justified, Spring argued, because those details would show “where we would end up under New START with regard to our final nuclear force.”
Reif countered, though, that the president "would rightly veto the [appropriations bill] if it included provisions that delayed and/or blocked implementation of New START."
Obama has not specifically indicated that he would reject the legislation if it arrived at the Oval Office with the amendment intact. However, the White House has issued a veto threat calling on lawmakers to take into account "national security" and other priorities as a conference version of the bill is hammered out with the Senate.
In related news, senators from Montana and North Dakota on Thursday said they had revised their chamber’s appropriations language to defund an Air Force study of cutbacks planned to land-based strategic nuclear missiles in their states. The service intends to eventually eliminate 30 of the 450 ICBMs at launch sites in Montana, North Dakota and Wyoming, according to the Great Falls Tribune.
The Defense Department sought the $1.5 million environmental assessment to help inform planning for how New START will be carried out, a blueprint that the Pentagon hopes to have ready by October 2014, the Pentagon told lawmakers on Thursday in a statement reported by the Tribune.
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