Letters to Leon

Senate, House lawmakers press Pentagon to fund nuclear modernization, bolster missile defenses


A bipartisan group of Senators is urging Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to provide more than $300 million in promised funding needed for modernizing the aging U.S. nuclear weapons complex.

Separately, two senior House Republicans want Panetta to explain whether U.S. intelligence estimates of when Iran will have long-range missile capabilities changed and whether U.S. missile defense plans are adequate to counter them.

The senators—led by Senate minority whip Jon Kyl and including six Republicans, one Democrat, and one Independent—stated in a June 29 letter that the president’s budget for nuclear weapons fell $370 million short of the amount required under 2010 legislation.

“In addition to delaying the life-extension programs for the W-76 and B-61 weapons, the fiscal 2013 request indefinitely defers construction of … a plutonium handling facility that is a key part of the nuclear stockpile stewardship program and necessary to meet DoD pit requirements for at least five years,” they stated.

The senators reminded Panetta that President Obama promised in 2011 to speed up work on the new chemistry and metallurgy plant and uranium facility, and to request full funding for those programs as part of nuclear weapons modernization that was promised in 2010 when the Senate ratified the U.S.-Russian New START arms treaty.

“We believe that the linkage between nuclear modernization and the New START treaty was clearly defined at the time of ratification and remains so today,” they said. “Thus we are concerned about the impact that failing to fulfill this critical commitment could have on future treaties the Senate may be asked to consider.”

The administration also failed to provide the Senate with several documents, including a five-year nuclear security program, updated nuclear stockpile management plans, and a 10-year budget plan for weapons and infrastructure modernization.

The senators said both the Senate and House armed services committees believe the new chemical facility must be a priority for nuclear modernization despite tight budgets. Both panels are requiring the administration to build the new chemical plant and are blocking funds for an alternative modernization plan offered by the administration.

“The Department of Defense and [Energy Department’s National Nuclear Security Administration] are collectively responsible for maintaining the nuclear deterrent,” the senators said. “We therefore urge you to work with the administration and NNSA to continue [chemical facility] design activities this year and build an out-year budget to support construction and operation by 2024.”

The requirement for the modernization will be included in the final defense bill for fiscal 2013, they said.

A congressional aide said the senators’ letter is a warning to the administration to follow through on promises made to fully fund nuclear weapons modernization efforts in exchange for Republican support for Senate ratification of the 2010 New START arms treaty with Russia.

On the House side, Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, and Rep. Michael R. Turner, chairman of subcommittee on strategic forces, wrote the defense secretary July 13 following release of a Pentagon report showing Iran is continuing to develop long-range ballistic missiles.

“We write out of concern with the Administration’s plans for missile defense, specifically, the continued sharp decline in the attention and resources invested in U.S. national missile defenses,” McKeon and Turner wrote.

The House armed services leaders also expressed worries that the Pentagon’s request to redirect $8 billion could, “in view of new information, continue to mis-prioritize scarce defense resources.”

At issue are 2009 intelligence estimates that said the pace of Iranian long-range missile development had slowed, prompting a major shift in U.S. missile defense strategy in Europe in favor of shorter-range defenses that are less-capable of defending the United States against a long-range Iranian missile attack.

However, the recently released report on Iran’s military concluded that Iran has boosted both “the lethality and effectiveness” of its missiles, including long-range capabilities.

The congressmen said the new assessments appear to undermine the 2009 view of Iran’s missile development, and they asked Panetta to answer whether Iran would now have a long-range missile deployed sooner than the earlier estimate.

They also asked Panetta to say whether Iran’s progress on long-range missiles affects Tehran’s calculus in building nuclear arms.

“There appears to be no reason for Iran to develop [intercontinental ballistic missiles] unless it has already decided to develop nuclear weapons, or other weapons of mass destruction, to put on top of those missiles,” McKeon and Turner stated.

The House members also asked whether North Korea is preparing to deploy a new, road-mobile ICBM this year.

McKeon and Turner again requested that the Pentagon send Congress a promised report on a missile defense “hedging strategy” for boosting defenses in the event missile threats to the United States emerge sooner than anticipated.

Part of that strategy is to build a long-range missile defense interceptor site on the U.S. East Coast that would include 20 ground-based missiles, they said.

“We request that you submit the hedging strategy… not later than the week of July 30,” McKeon and Turner wrote.

Both lawmakers suggested that the Pentagon’s $8 billion in reprogramming requests—“with significant sums of money intended for missile defense capabilities oriented to a potential conflict with a regional threat”—could be held up until they receive answers to the questions.

The letter from the senators was signed by Republican Sens. Kyl (R., Ariz.), John McCain (R., Ariz.), Ben Nelson (D., Neb.), Joe Lieberman (I., Conn.), Bob Corker (R., Tenn.), Johnny Isakson (R., Ga.), James M. Inhofe (R., Okla.), and Kelly Ayotte (R., N.H.).