“If we are not going to build a new weapon…”

April 28, 2010
Mark Donaldson
Former contributor

“This modernization plan has to be a lot more than words and vague commitments. As far as I’m concerned, it has to be an absolute commitment to adequate funding for everything that has to be done, as well as a sufficiently clear outline of the way that we’re going to perform life extension if we are not going to build a new weapon, which the NPR eschews, and if we are not going to test.”

– Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ), April 19, 2010, at the National Defense
University Foundation breakfast, emphasis original

In the above, by separating out “new” weapons, Senator Kyl draws an important distinction between issues he had previously conflated: warhead “modernization” and building new warheads. Our hope is his statement affirms that pouring funds into the nuclear weapons complex, even while ruling out “new” weapons (and we’ll explain those quotes later), combined with the benefits of the treaty, will be reason enough for Kyl to support the New START agreement.

The Senator’s words are vitally important. He is the undisputed leader of the Republican caucus on arms control issues, and it was his personal efforts that directly led to the downfall of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in 1999.

And if support for the nuclear weapons complex and a plan for the future are what the Senator wants in exchange for his vote, he will be getting it in spades. President Obama poured $7 billion into the nuclear stockpile in his 2011 budget request, a move that Senator Kyl called “welcome.” The budget request included major increases in funding for programs like the B61 warhead life-extension program and two new nuclear facilities. This funding was significantly higher than the highest funding levels under President Bush, leading former NNSA head Linton Brooks to say he “would have killed” for the 2011 budget.

Of course, these steps have not stopped Kyl from making apocalyptic statements about the state of our nuclear weapons and infrastructure. In last week’s comments, he perpetuated the myth that the United States is the only nuclear power that is not modernizing its weapons. The simple fact is, the United States has the most capable, up-to-date arsenal in the world. Would the Senator trade our stockpile for Russia’s?

The key item that Senator Kyl is awaiting is the administration’s 10-year plan for modernization, a plan mandated in Section 1251 of the 2010 Defense Authorization Act. The administration plans to submit the plan to Congress together with the New START agreement and its supporting documents in May. NNSA Administrator Tom D’Agostino, in response to questions in Congressional hearings, has assured Congress that this modernization plan will fund the weapons complex to his satisfaction and to the satisfaction of the lab directors. (Another question for Senator Kyl: will any amount of funding be “enough,” or is this really about other issues?)

Previously, based on his interpretation of Section 1251, the Senator had sought to extract from administration officials additional promises that the law does not obligate them to make. For example, in a letter last December signed by 40 other Republicans and Senator Lieberman, citing Section 1251, the Senator called for the administration to provide, in addition to plans for funding stockpile surveillance and the nuclear complex, funding for a “modern warhead” in the 10-year plan. However, the FY10 Defense Authorization Act only calls for the President to:

  1. enhance the safety, security, and reliability of the nuclear weapons stockpile of the United States;
  2. modernize the nuclear weapons complex;
  3. and maintain the delivery platforms for nuclear weapons.

Nothing in that language requires new warheads.

Many had feared that the Senator and others would make new warheads a sticking point in the New START ratification debate. This recent talk may be a sign that he has decided not to take that position, particularly as Secretary of Defense Gates – who previously has called for a new warhead himself – has signed off on the NPR’s rejection of them.

And why the previous quotes around “new”? Because the administration created a backdoor that would allow it to build what, for all intents and purposes, is a new warhead, at least as much as the officially-rejected Reliable Replacement Warhead was one. In the NPR, the administration supported the options of refurbishment, reuse, and replacement to achieve life-extension goals. It stated that reuse and refurbishment were the “preferred” options, and made approval of replacement methods subject to Presidential and Congressional approval. That approach would have prohibited some of the options considered under the RRW program, but would have allowed the NNSA’s approved design to go forward.

For his part, Senator Kyl warned that this approach would have a “chilling effect” on the labs, preventing them from pursuing replacement if it was required. Given the labs’ history of seeking rationales to justify new warheads – see plutonium aging and reliability issues – that does not seem to be a worry. But, speaking for the administration, NNSA head D’Agostino insisted in a hearing on Thursday that the lab directors “were comfortable” with the NPR’s stance on replacement, which emphasized that the “full range” of life-extension options will be available to the labs.

Only one senator, Senator Inhofe, has stated that he will oppose the New START agreement. We hope that Senator Kyl’s statements indicate that he will join the clear majority of senators in supporting this treaty and continue the long history of bipartisan support for arms control agreements.