New START: Arms Affirmation Treaty

The New START treaty should at best be called an “arms affirmation treaty,” confirming that expensive weapons systems, which include the nation’s nuclear arsenal, remain a national priority. Like the earlier Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, New START insulates nuclear weapons spending, as well as large budgets for other weapons systems.

Thus far, the ratification debate in the U.S. Senate has assured funding for multi-billion-dollar missile defense and prompt global strike weapons systems and has undermined the possibility of political opposition. Campaign contribution and lobbying disclosure data help explain why corporate contractors, with vested interests, have been able to influence both Republican and Democratic senators throughout the ratification debate.

Ratification and the Budget

In April, President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev signed the New START Treaty, meant to replace the START 1 treaty that expired in December 2009. For the United States to be party to the treaty, the Senate must approve. On Sept. 16, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee reported the New START treaty to the Senate floor by a vote of 14-4. Should the Democrats believe they have enough Republican votes lined up for the two-thirds majority approval required for full-Senate ratification, the final vote will be scheduled after the Nov. 2 elections.

Politicking aside, in normal years treaty ratification has nothing to do with issues of budget and planning. But 2010 has not been a normal year. Rocked by a declining economy and lower projected revenues, all branches of the federal government have been asked to prepare for deeper cuts. However, the New START treaty’s ratification process has shielded nuclear weapons and other military programs from the budget axe. Pressure to ratify the treaty has created a dysfunctional situation in which Senate approval has been instrumentally tied to ever increasing budgetary commitments for missile defense, prompt global strike (PGS), and nuclear and non-nuclear strategic weapons programs. The U.S. nuclear weapons complex, Missile Defense Agency, and Strategic Command (which oversees PGS) are using these negotiations as a proxy for a budget debate that isn’t happening, and they gain approval and funding for programs that in a normal legislative context would not necessarily be guaranteed. A comprehensive review of weapons programs’ true needs, especially the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal, has thus not occurred.

Congress has not yet passed a FY2011 budget. Instead, Congress passed a continuing resolution (CR) in October, which typically funds government spending at the previous year’s levels until the budget is approved. Without a budget, planning is very difficult for federal programs and agencies.

Because of pressure to ratify New START, the Obama administration made several exceptions within this recent CR. These exceptions allow for immediate increased spending on, and long-term planning for, nuclear weapons. For example, the National Nuclear Security Administration’s (NNSA’s) stop-gap budget is set at $624 million over the 2010 levels. The CR is generously funding the NNSA plans to expand the nuclear weapons complex and conduct costly design and modification work on several nuclear warhead models. The United States is on track to spend upward of $7 billion on nuclear weapons [.pdf] in 2011 to modernize the U.S. nuclear weapons complex.

Arms Affirmation

The fiscal and political dynamics of the ratification process, fed by the Right and the Left, are leading to outcomes contrary to the declared intent of the treaty – disarmament.

Ratified or not, New START will be one of the costliest treaties negotiated between the White House and Senate in recent history. These deliberations have already resulted in deals that ensure that the military and its contractors will receive huge budget increases, including funding for a new plutonium bomb pit factory, a growing the missile defense program that is already as large as the NNSA nuclear weapons program, the conversion of nuclear-capable missiles into conventional strike weapons under the prompt global strike (PGS) weapons program, and a new generation of submarines and jets to deploy the nuclear arsenal.

The nominal reductions in deployed strategic nuclear weapons required by New START pale against the multi-billion dollar nuclear and non-nuclear weapons programs made possible by the treaty’s text. Significantly, New START’s reductions only address deployed strategic nuclear weapons, not tactical weapons or strategic weapons held in reserve. The treaty limits the signatory nations to a total strategic deployed arsenal of 1,550 warheads on 700 platforms each, platforms being the bombers and missiles that can launch these weapons. If the United States chooses to juggle warhead distribution among different platforms under the treaty’s counting rules, it theoretically could increase the number of warheads currently deployed and have more than 1,550 at the ready. Because of how the treaty counts nuclear weapons, the United States could choose to withdraw as few as 162 weapons from its arsenal to reach the mandated 1,550 warhead limit – a mere 8 percent decrease!

This is because the treaty counts each nuclear-capable bomber aircraft as one nuclear weapon, even though bombers are capable of carrying 16-20 nuclear weapons apiece. Thus, if the United States currently has 1,968 strategic weapons deployed on 798 platforms, it need only reduce the platform count by 98. It does not need to de-deploy 418 weapons to reach the 1,550 limit. Rather, U.S. war planners can, if they choose to do so, upload cruise missiles and bombs onto bombers that are “reduced” from the ICBM and SLBM legs of the triad. The United States would then have 256 weapons hidden in 60 bombers. Since there is an upload capacity of 820 spaces for cruise missiles and bombs on these bombers, this theoretically would allow a deployment of well over the 1,550 limit, as long as ICBM and SLBM weapons are reduced by 162.

Negotiations for the ratification of New START were conducted based on the provision in Article V of the treaty, which permits “modernization and replacement of strategic offensive arms.” Thus, approval would not impede modernization of nuclear weapons or the nuclear weapons complex, nor would it impede ongoing and planned investments in missile defense and PGS weapons systems.

The Senate’s ratification resolution calls on the executive branch to clarify its plans for the PGS weapons program, a new conventional weapons system that top White House advisers consider a viable strategic alternative to nuclear weapons. With respect to missile defense, the START Treaty ratification resolution states, “It is the understanding of the United States that […] the New START Treaty does not impose any limitations on the deployment of the missile defenses other than the requirements of paragraph 3, Article V.” This particular section imposes limits on the conversion of ICBMs and SLBMs for use as missile defense interceptors, but the treaty excludes existing Minuteman ICBMs situated at Vandenberg and Fort Greely Air Force Bases that are used in the Boeing-run ground missile defense system. Since the Pentagon is not requesting other ICBMs or SLBMs, as head of the Missile Defense Agency Lt. Gen. Patrick O’Reilly has pointed out, there is no actual limitation.

In order to win Republican support necessary for passage, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair John Kerry (D-Mass.) supported the substitution of his “Resolution of Advice and Consent” with Sen. Richard Lugar’s (R-Ind.) version, although Kerry’s already contained a strong endorsement of nuclear modernization, missile defense, and PGS. Two amendments were added prior to the SFSC vote. Sen. James Risch’s (R-Idaho) amendment assures funding increases for new nuclear-weapons-capable submarines, missiles, and bombers (the strategic “triad”). Sen. Jim DeMint’s (R-S.C.) clause, meanwhile, emphasizes that the treaty does not prohibit the building of any missile defense system, especially one that achieves the vision of Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative – an impenetrable shield over North America ready to strike down one or thousands of warheads from the sky.

Lugar’s approved resolution protects the nuclear modernization, missile defense, and prompt global strike provisions from the budget shortfalls that will affect most federal agencies in the upcoming fiscal years. Consequently, the ratification process has undercut the possibility of wide-ranging debate on the merits and costs of these weapons programs within and outside the halls of Congress. Centrist arms control groups, such as the Arms Control Association and Council for a Livable World, have emphasized that New START imposes neither limits on nuclear modernization nor missile defense in their op-eds and pro-ratification testimony. Liberal peace groups have tended to omit any references to provisions within the treaty that require nuclear modernization or additional weapons systems in their communications with constituents and the public. Ironically, many peace and security foundations and organizations – from the Ploughshares Fund and the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation to the American Friends Service Committee and Peace Action West – have lobbied aggressively for New START ratification, further empowering Republican senators to demand even larger investments in nuclear and non-nuclear weapons programs.

Modernization of the Stockpile and Complex

In dollars, the amount required to overhaul and modernize the U.S. nuclear enterprise will be in the billions over the next two decades. The Obama administration’s classified report, required by Section 1251 of the National Defense Authorization Act, outlines a large array of investments in nuclear weapons modernization programs. These include funds to sustain the large weapons research and design laboratories at Livermore, Calif., and Los Alamos, N.M. There will also be money to work directly on the nuclear stockpile by “reusing,” “refurbishing,” and even “replacing” components with newer and more advanced capabilities. Finally, the budget will cover rebuilding the complete core of the federal government’s industrial nuclear complex where nuclear weapons and materials are fabricated, tested, and assembled. This capital investment program is one of the federal government’s largest single commitments to any program, defense or non-defense.

By the National Nuclear Security Administration’s own definition, a “major construction project” is any capital investment costing more than $20 million. The agency currently has 14 such projects underway in the nuclear weapons complex. The largest will cost several billion. For example, the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility‘s last official estimate was $3.2 billion, but sources close to the design process report that it is nearing the $6 billion mark. If built, this project will house labs, workspaces, and vaults for storing plutonium. It would also be the most important (and expensive) part of the U.S. nuclear weapons manufacturing complex.

The Uranium Processing Facility may cost upwards of $5 billion. The High Explosive Pressing Facility is scheduled to cost $134 million. Both of these facilities will manufacture nuclear weapons components.

Seven of NNSA’s 14 major construction projects have no total cost estimate. One facility, a manufacturing plant for U.S. nuclear weapon parts known as the KCRIMS project, has an estimated price tag of $500 million. A private developer and the local government in the Kansas City area will pick up the tab on the front end. NNSA will lease it back for a cost of almost a billion dollars over its operating lifespan. Because of this creative financing, the KCRIMS project is omitted from NNSA’s own construction accounting budget.

All of these capital projects are guaranteed funding increases under the Continuing Resolution and have been affirmed in multiple ways during the New START ratification debate. Excerpts from the FY2011 NNSA budget request show that many of the agency’s planned construction investments in nuclear weapons manufacturing facilities have no final total cost estimate. The timeline in the administration’s report, which shows future planning for the U.S. nuclear weapons complex, testifies to the deeply anti-disarmament agenda of the military, White House, and Senate.

In addition to these large construction projects, the FY2011 nuclear weapons budget is stocked with increased design and manufacturing accounts for nuclear weapons. For example, the Obama administration suggests spending $249 million on a Life Extension Program (LEP) for the W76 warheads. LEPs involve complicated overhauls of nuclear weapons, from changes made to their design to refurbishment or replacement of aging components. With close to 770 of these W76 warheads in the deployed strategic stockpile, this weapon constitutes the true backbone of U.S. nuclear forces. Life extensions for these weapons will ultimately cost several billion dollars. Other LEPs with similar or even larger cost estimates, like the B-61 gravity bomb, are planned or underway.

Senate Brokerage of Arms Spending

A cursory analysis of campaign contributions helps explain why the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has crafted the treaty’s language in such a way that New START assures large funding increases and authorization to move ahead with various weapons programs. Democrats and Republicans agree on increasing procurement budgets. The difference is by how much, with the Democrats requesting only somewhat less than Republicans.

Data culled from the U.S. Senate’s lobbying disclosure database and the Center for Responsive Politics’ Open Secrets database demonstrate that Democrats and Republicans both strongly protect the interests of nuclear weapons, missile defense, and PGS contractors, who are among their biggest financial supporters. Over the last five years, members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee have received more than $765,000 in contributions from these contractors. Democrats led Republicans with approximately $424,000 in contractor cash.

Senators receiving the most arms contractor cash were Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.), James Inhofe (R-Okla.), Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and Jim Webb (D-Va.). Sen. Dodd’s lead is due to a singularly large pattern of contributions from United Technologies, a diversified military contractor headquartered in his home state of Connecticut. Without Dodd’s $115,250 in UT cash, the Democrats would trail Republicans in total weapons contractor contributions by about $31,000. Only three senators on the Committee, all Democrats, have reported no significant contributions from these contractors: Russell Feingold (D-Wisc.), Robert Casey (D-Pa.), and Edward Kaufman (D-Del.).

The largest cash contributions by corporations have come from United Technologies, Honeywell International, Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, CH2M Hill, General Dynamics, and Boeing. Lockheed Martin is the prime contractor for the PGS “Conventional Strike Missile,” a modified Minuteman III ICBM with a hypersonic “payload delivery vehicle” capable of attacking any point on earth within one hour. Boeing and Northrop Grumman are the prime contractors for the Missile Defense Agency’s “Ground-Based Midcourse Defense” weapons system. United Technologies, Raytheon, General Dynamics, and Honeywell have numerous contracts and subcontracts supporting these and other missile defense or PGS weapons programs.

These contractors also have the most active professional lobbies on Capitol Hill. Since the April 8 signing of New START, military contractors with stakes in missile defense have spent approximately $59 million lobbying the Senate. Raytheon alone has spent $22 million since April to employ its own lobbyists, as well as such firms as the Breaux Lott Leadership Group, Potomac Advocates, and DLA Piper, LLP.

In the same period, other military contractors have reported similarly large lobbying expenses for “missile defense.” Lockheed Martin comes in at $13 million, Boeing and Northrop Grumman both at $9 million, Honeywell at $1.6 million, and Orbital Sciences Corporation at $500,000. Other lobbying firms employed by these corporations include Clark & Weinstock, McBee Strategic Consulting, The Foxtail Group, and Carter Consulting.

Although only a fraction of these expenses have been specifically allocated to lobby senators to support missile defense and PGS, arms contractors have ably influenced the dynamics of New START ratification, ensuring there are no limits on these weapons programs or fiscal and political constraints.

The New START treaty and its ratification process affirm that costly nuclear and non-nuclear weapons systems remain a national priority, and confirm that arms control treaties lead not toward general disarmament but toward increased investments in such weapons systems. Propelled by both peace and arms control nonprofits, as well as by arms contractors and their lobbyists, the ratification process has served as a proxy forum in which questions of budget and authorization for nuclear weapons, missile defense, and prompt global strike weapons systems have been hashed out in advance of nearly all other federal budget questions. Conditions for the treaty’s ratification were linked early on to funding increases for these programs. Passage will signify the Senate’s affirmation of further militarization. New START mostly allows for the status quo nuclear postures of the United States and Russia to remain intact.

Reprinted courtesy of Foreign Policy in Focus.

Author: Darwin BondGraham

Darwin BondGraham is a member of the Los Alamos Study Group. He's also an ethnographer and historian with a degree in sociology. His current work focuses on economic and social development.