December 8, 2004 | WebMemo on National Security and Defense

Congress is Wrong to Defund Strategic Programs

Once again Congress has demonstrated its willingness to put parochial politics ahead of national security. On November 20, Congress passed the FY 2005 Omnibus Appropriations Bill, which eliminated funding for study relating to the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator and the Advanced Concepts Initiative. The bill also severely reduced funding for design work on a new facility for warhead components, known as the Modern Pit Facility. This vote to all but kill these extremely important national security programs threatens to make America less safe. Although it is unclear whether or not these programs are dead, this bill sends the unmistakable message that members of Congress are unwilling, or unable, to understand the evolving role of nuclear weapons in modern national security. The threat is real that America's strategic policy and capability will not be prepared for the threats of the 21st century.

 

Opponents of the nuclear-weapons portion of the bill advance three main criticisms:

  • A New Arms Race: Critics argue that these programs will spark an arms race and make it difficult for the United States to exert moral pressure on other nations to reduce their own nuclear capabilities. This is untrue. First, the United States is actually dismantling its nuclear weapons arsenal at a record pace and to unprecedented levels. Furthermore, the concept of a new "arms race" with a country like Russia is outdated. The United States and Russia are friends and have no reason to engage in costly arms races. And regarding proliferation, critics should recognize the fundamental difference between unpredictable or dangerous dictators seeking and possessing nuclear weapons and responsible powers like the United States, Great Britain, France, Russia, and China maintaining their nuclear capabilities. In fact, this is the scenario foreseen by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which created a system in which certain nations would have nuclear weapons while the rest of the world would forgo them.
     
  • Nuclear Deterrence is a Cold War Concept: Critics of the President accuse him of being stuck in the Cold War. Actually, it is the other way around. The Administration recognizes that America's nuclear arsenal is a Cold War relic. Today's arsenal should reflect the current security environment and be flexible enough to respond to unpredictable future threats. With the rise of proliferation, non-state actors, and new contingencies that were thought unthinkable just a few years ago, deterrence and new ways to project deterrence are more important than ever. Yet today's nuclear arsenal remains geared toward the static, predictable days of the Cold War and loses relevance with each day that passes. Maintaining the status quo is not a sensible option.
     
  • Quantity: Opponents argue that the approximately 7,000 nuclear warheads already stockpiled are enough. In reality, the days of bean counting nuclear warheads are over. It is true that the United States has enough-indeed it has too many-Cold War-era nuclear warheads. While a smaller number of these large strategic warheads are still needed to hedge against the rise of a future strategic competitor, in today's world it is more important to have a smaller, more flexible arsenal. Cold War weaponry alone, nuclear and conventional, is inappropriate for today's diverse world. The real issue is quality, not quantity. Only usable weapons deter enemies. The wrong kind of weapon, in the wrong quantity, will do little to deter anyone and can invite aggression.

 

The three nuclear-weapons programs that the appropriations bill left unfunded are all integral to America's ability to ensure deterrence and the long-term security of the nation.

  • The Modern Pit Facility. The most important piece of the "quality not quantity" argument is the Modern Pit Facility. As the United States dismantles its Cold War nuclear arsenal, it must be able to guarantee the safety, reliability, and credibility of the remaining program. Currently, it takes years to build a nuclear weapon. In the current security environment where circumstances can change instantly and response timelines are short, this is too long. The Modern Pit Facility would give the United States the ability to reconstitute, regenerate, and replace weapons as needed. Eliminating the need to maintain costly stockpiles of obsolete technology and assuring the necessary latitude in research and development are vital for future defense needs.
     
  • The Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator (RNEP). This is not a new weapon, but a new capability. President Clinton originally modified the B-61 to penetrate frozen earth, creating a new type of "bunker buster." America's enemies today rely on fortified underground bunkers, some of which conventional weapons cannot breach. Research in the RNEP program could lead to improved effectiveness in the field and, ultimately, to a safer environment for U.S. troops.
     
  • The Advanced Concepts Initiative. No one can predict the future. It is impossible to forecast the future size, composition, capabilities, and role of America's strategic arsenal, both conventional and nuclear. The most dangerous option, though, would be to ignore the role of nuclear weapons rather then try to understand the role they might play in future national security. The Advanced Concepts Initiative is intended to evaluate the relationship between U.S. capabilities and current threats, and provide recommendations on future production and deployment. This sort of sensible, forward-looking research could pay dividends for years to come. Cutting its funding is, at best, short-sighted.

The enduring role of nuclear weapons as a powerful deterrent was recently reaffirmed from the unlikely direction of Russia. According to President Putin "We know that we have only to weaken our attention to such components of our defenses as the nuclear-missile shield, and new threats to us could appear." This is not an arms race; it is prudence.

 

The issue at hand is nothing more complicated than having a nuclear arsenal of the right size, flexibility, and quality and studying how such an arsenal should be developed. For the sake of ensuring that this vital capability remains at the forefront of defense planning, Congress should reinstate funding for these programs.

 

Jack Spencer is Senior Policy Analyst for Defense and National Security in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation. Kathy Gudgel, Research Assistant in Defense and National Security, contributed to this piece.

About the Author

Jack Spencer Vice President, the Institute for Economic Freedom and Opportunity