Two senior leaders of the House Armed Services Committee this week criticized President Obama’s forthcoming plan to seek deeper cuts in strategic nuclear warheads, calling a Pentagon study on the matter "unilateral disarmament."
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon and Rep. Michael Turner, chairman of the strategic forces subcommittee, made the comments in response to a report in the Free Beacon disclosing that the president has decided to seek a deployed strategic warhead goal of as few as 1,000 warheads under the Nuclear Posture Review implementation study.
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McKeon and Turner said in a statement issued Tuesday that Obama’s meeting this week in Mexico with Russian President Vladimir Putin raises new concerns about unilateral U.S. cuts in the nuclear arsenal.
"To be clear, the White House has yet to announce how it plans to implement the unilateral reductions of the New START Treaty," they said. "At the same time, the president’s promised modernization plan isn't being delivered."
The Obama administration, in seeking Republican senators’ support for ratification of the 2010 New START arms treaty with Russia, agreed to spend $72.4 billion on modernizing the aging nuclear stockpile and related infrastructure. The president’s most recent budget request cuts $500 million from the modernization funds.
McKeon and Turner said the president appears willing to compromise with Russia on missile defense and nuclear issues but "doesn't seem equally disposed where Congress is concerned [by] maintaining a veto threat over legislation that would protect the U.S. military from devastating automatic cuts."
"The result of this dual approach is unilateral disarmament of the United States," the House leaders said.
"While Iran, North Korea, India, Pakistan, Russia and China remain committed to nuclear weapons, and in some cases are expanding and modernizing them, this president has thus far succeeded in only reducing the nuclear arms of one country: the United States."
U.S. officials said this week that the administration will seek the additional warhead cuts after the yearlong NPR implementation review.
The review had tasked defense and military officials to examine warhead cuts to as low as 300 warheads, fewer than in China’s arsenal, as part of the president’s anti-nuclear weapons agenda. Obama announced in Prague in 2009 that he would seek a world without nuclear weapons. Officials later made clear that the United States would not eliminate its nuclear arsenal while still being threatened with nuclear attack.
The New START arms treaty with Russia calls on the United States to cut its nuclear stockpile to 1,550 warheads.
Treaty critics in Congress noted after the treaty was signed that Russia had reached that level and thus the treaty was a unilateral U.S. disarmament pact.
According to the State Department, in April the United States fielded 1,737 warheads while Russia had 1,492.
Strategic nuclear specialists say the deeper cuts beyond 1,550 could undermine the ability of the U.S. military to deter nuclear powers and also weaken efforts to provide what the Pentagon calls extended deterrence for allies in Europe and Asia.
Keith B. Payne, a specialist on nuclear deterrence who has been critical of the Obama administration’s nuclear policy, said reports of the deeper cuts are no surprise.
"I will be shocked if the Russians play, unless the administration is willing to give on [ballistic missile defense] and tactical weapons," Payne said.
The new push for additional cuts "probably sets up something short of a treaty, such as a presidential agreement or political agreement," he said.
A U.S. Strategic Command spokesman declined to comment but referred to recent comments by Gen. Robert Kehler, head of the U.S. Strategic Command, on U.S. nuclear forces.
Kehler expressed concerns last month about cuts in both warheads and funding for needed modernization of the nuclear stockpile.
Kehler outlined areas of the nuclear complex that are in need of modernization, including delivery systems, weapons life extension programs, stockpile monitoring, naval reactor design work, and upgrades for nuclear command and control.
He also said that further cuts beyond the New START levels would require the command to "completely review" the impact on deterrence.
Kehler said he is most concerned about funding "the nuclear enterprise itself," which is in need of upgrading, and a failure to do so, he noted, could result "in our inability to sustain the deterrent force."
Last week Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told defense reporters that he favored steeper cuts in U.S. nuclear forces based on what he said were fewer nuclear threats and fiscal constraints.
"I can’t see any reason for having as large an inventory as we are allowed to have under New START, in terms of real threat, potential threat," Levin said.
The calls for deep nuclear cuts come as Russia and China are bolstering their strategic arsenals with new missiles and warheads.
China currently is engaged in what defense officials say is a covert buildup of nuclear forces that is being carried out largely in secret, through a complex of underground tunnels and facilities estimated to be 3,000 miles long.
Russia also is modernizing its nuclear forces with an array of new weaponry, including several new missile systems.
North Korea also is expanding its nuclear forces, and Iran is estimated to be six months to a year from having its first nuclear weapon once a decision is made by Tehran to do so. Both Pyongyang and Tehran already have missiles capable of delivering a nuclear warhead.
In a speech last month, former State Department arms control and security policymaker Robert Joseph criticized the Obama administration’s nuclear force cuts.
"While a nuclear free world may be a laudable vision, it doesn’t fit today’s circumstances, and it doesn’t work to counter the real-world challenges that our nation faces, whether from state proliferators or from the threat of nuclear terrorism or potentially from future peer competitors," Joseph, an informal adviser to Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, said May 9.
Joseph said the administration’s downgrading the importance of nuclear deterrence is "based on policies of unilateral disarmament founded on ideology, rather than on the realities and the dangers of the world as it exists today."