The U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee last week issued new legislation that echoes questions about President Obama's nuclear weapons-strategy initially raised last month in the House (see GSN, May 27).
The fiscal 2012 defense authorization bill approved unanimously by the panel calls for a presidential report "describing any new nuclear employment strategy if and when such a strategy is issued," according to a Senate committee release.
The demand apparently stems from lawmaker concerns that a new round of strategic arms control reductions below current treaty ceilings could require a change in nuclear-targeting approach in which Washington focuses strikes on population centers rather than on an adversary's military installations.
The thinking is that some sort of alternative targeting scheme might be required if much deeper cuts are taken in the stockpile because fewer weapons would be available for hitting enemy assets.
The Obama administration has said the Defense Department is studying the prospects for additional reductions below caps set by a recently enacted U.S.-Russian nuclear arms control deal, but has not yet determined whether that would require any such changes in strategy.
The Senate bill also requires the White House to submit to Congress a "net assessment" to support any new proposal "to reduce the nuclear weapons stockpile below the numbers in the New START treaty or to reduce the number of hedge weapons in the stockpile," the panel said last week. It offered no additional detail on what the assessment must entail.
The hedge force consists of backup warheads that could be put on alert in a crisis, in case a resurgent threat develops or a major technical problem is discovered in fielded weapons.
The bipartisan legislation, dubbed S. 981, additionally directs the Defense secretary to provide an "accounting report" that tallies both deployed and nondeployed weapons in the U.S. arsenal, the committee stated in its Friday release.
The bill text and committee report have not yet been made public but could be released by the end of this week, according to Senate aides. Lawmakers reportedly are hopeful the defense spending authorization package will go to the Senate floor for debate and a vote prior to the summer recess, which begins on August 8. The next budget year begins on October 1.
The Senate committee measure appears aimed at staking out a more moderate approach to nuclear-weapons strategy, modernization, and arms-control issues than House fiscal 2012 legislation that prompted a White House veto threat. While House lawmakers erected some potentially serious obstacles to further nuclear cutbacks or targeting-strategy changes, the Senate merely called for reports.
It is unclear, however, whether the new Senate legislation will nonetheless trigger a similar standoff with the president. A White House spokeswoman on Monday directed a reporter to the Office of Management and Budget's May 24 tatement in reaction to the House defense authorization bill, but offered no comment about the Senate version.
The House legislation, known as H.R. 1540, includes so-called "New START Implementation" provisions that would restrict the administration's ability to cut deployed or nondeployed nuclear weapons below levels set by the accord, unless required by a treaty or authorized by Congress.
New START, which entered into force in February, caps U.S. and Russian deployed strategic nuclear warheads to 1,550 on each side, down from a ceiling of 2,200 imposed by an earlier treaty. It limits fielded strategic nuclear delivery systems at 700, with an additional 100 platforms allowed in reserve.
Under certain conditions, the House measure could also prohibit the executive branch from eliminating weapons from the hedge force until the mid-2020s, when a new plutonium facility at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and a uranium facility at Oak Ridge, Tenn., are scheduled to be built and operating.
In terms of the Pentagon's nuclear targeting approach, the House bill would actually prevent the president from adopting a "countervalue" strategy -- a shift that Republicans have charged would introduce an "immoral" rise in civilian casualties during a nuclear war. This passage in the legislation would also require the president to certify that any new strategy uses all three legs of the nuclear triad: ICBMs, bomber aircraft, and submarine-based ballistic missiles.