After the release of the Nuclear Posture Review, the signing of the START treaty and the recent Nuclear Security Summit, many US senators still have questions regarding the plans the administration has with missile defense. Many Republicans are weary that without these questions answered ratification of START may be difficult.
Of all President Barack Obama’s nuclear arms reduction initiatives — including his world without nuclear weapons and a test ban treaty — negotiating and ratifying an updated Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia was seen as the easiest step.
But in a congressional session so poisonous that even a jobs bill was in doubt at a time of soaring unemployment, securing the two-thirds vote of the Senate necessary to ratify the treaty is no sure thing.
Conservative commentators say Obama’s recent steps on nuclear issues, including START, the Nuclear Posture Review and the Nuclear Security Summit, will weaken national security. But Senate Republicans have been much more cautious in their criticism, pledging some level of support for the treaty.
That said, most Republicans have questions about the administration’s nuclear agenda that they want answered before they’ll vote yes. That means debate over the START treaty is likely to become the battleground for policy differences on matters of missile defense, nuclear modernization and a new generation of bombers.
The administration’s goal for passing the treaty, which expired in December, was as soon as possible. Now that is being described as a hope.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) told reporters Tuesday the treaty “may take until the first of the year.”
For starters, the Senate hasn’t seen the treaty yet. The administration isn’t expected to provide the Senate with the document, along with its detailed annexes, until May, after which it can begin hearings with top officials.
And by then, debate over the next Supreme Court nomination may be dominating the Senate.
While Indiana Sen. Dick Lugar, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, supports the bill, the Democrats will need more Republicans for ratification. Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) is doubtful the Democrats can round up that many right now.
Lieberman is raising some of the same questions as Republicans — among them, whether Russia has been able to connect the nuclear deal with missile defense in ways that could hamper U.S. plans for national security.
Last week, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev told George Stephanopoulos that the START treaty’s preamble makes a link between the strategic nuclear weapons that are the topic of the treaty and missile defense, hinting that if the U.S. missile defense plans would significantly change, Russian could withdraw from the treaty.
Republicans are pointing to that statement, wondering whether the U.S.’s current plans for upgrading missile defense in the future would concern the Russians.
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) said the administration has told lawmakers that there is no connection in the START treaty with missile defense. “But the Russian official said that there’s a clear agreement on that,” Sessions told POLITICO. “I’m very worried about that.”
Right now, the United States has truncated production of its largest missile defense system for up to 30 interceptors housed in California and Alaska, said Peter Huessy, president of GeoStrategic Analysis. He sees that system — a precursor to the one the U.S. withdrew from Poland and the Czech Republic last year — as the one that will defeat long-range missiles that could be launched someday by Iran.
Huessy said Iranian missile development is moving faster than anticipated. So the question is whether the U.S. can develop its missile defenses faster than the Iranians can extend the range of their missiles — and then, if the U.S. upgrades its systems, will the Russians balk?
“Where are Russian red lines?” Huessy asked. “And at what point do legitimate enhancements … begin to impact on the cooperation we get from Russia?”
Republicans are also turning up the heat on nuclear issues. Ohio Rep. Michael Turner doesn’t have to grapple with the START treaty but is the ranking Republican on the House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee, which presides over missile defense and nuclear weapons.
The House has two key hearings involving nuclear policy and missile defense this week. Turner is seeking more information on modernizing the nation’s nuclear complex. While he liked statements by Defense Secretary Robert Gates indicating that the Nuclear Posture Review includes flexibility to replace components to extend the lives of aging nuclear weapons, Turner wants to ensure that future budgets follow through.
The nation’s nuclear labs have suffered from years of disinvestment, he said. Although the administration increased the labs’ budgets by 13 percent this year and the Defense Department has promised to share $5 billion with the labs over the next five years, Turner said he wants to make sure that money is actually set aside in future budgets.
In a House Armed Services Committee hearing Wednesday, Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) pressed the administration officials on whether the nation’s nuclear labs have the flexibility they seek in replacing nuclear weapons components to keep the weapons operable.
“I heard what you said,” about lab directors supporting the flexibility of current plans for nuclear modernization, Thornberry said. “But you can’t read these words about no new nuclear weapons, no new nuclear components and believe that the full range is really there. It looks like words.”
“I want to assure you we don’t play games with the budget,” replied Thomas D’Agostino, head of the National Nuclear Security Administration.
Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) is also looking ahead — wanting to see a nuclear modernization plan when the treaty is delivered. “That is required and will be a necessary precondition to the treaty,” Kyl said.
South Dakota Sen. John Thune agreed that showing Republicans the administration is committed to nuclear modernization will be critical to the treaty’s success. “Absent a hard commitment on that, I think it’s going to be very hard to get Republicans to move forward,” Thune said.
Thune, whose home state houses bombers, is also looking to make sure that Pentagon plans for a future bomber remain intact.
Air Force officials told Thune on Tuesday that the Pentagon’s plans to produce a new bomber won’t be realized until after the 10-year START agreement is due to expire.
Regardless, Thune said, decisions made in this Nuclear Posture Review will have an impact on the role that bomber aircraft plays in the nuclear triad. “It’s a discussion we need to have,” he said. “Not only as we look down the road but in the near term as well.”