Modernization Progress of Nuclear Arsenal Proves Contentious

United States Capitol (Credit: Allen Dodson)
United States Capitol (Credit: Allen Dodson)

While the New START Treaty provides an unprecedented exchange of information between the United States and Russia, in a hearing on June 21 some senators aired their concern with the Obama administration’s commitment to fulfill its promise to modernize the U.S. arsenal.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee analyzed the Treaty’s implementation since February 2011. Massachusetts Senator and Committee Chair John Kerry and committee ranking member Richard Lugarof Indiana presided over the hearing. The panel of witnesses included Thomas D’Agostino, Administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration; Rose Gottemoeller, acting Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security; and Madelyn Creedon, Assistant Secretary of Defense of Global Strategic Affairs.

In her opening statements, Gottemoeller explained the Treaty’s promotion of “ongoing transparency and predictability,” while still maintaining the U.S.’s nuclear deterrence. Agencies, both American and Russia, have been “sharing a veritable mountain of data with each other” allowing “a truly real time look at what is going on in the Russian Strategic Forces.”

Addressing a question from Lugar, Gottemoeller clarified the process of nuclear inspections. The Treaty allows for 18 short-notice inspections of Russian nuclear facilities each year (since the implementation of the Treaty in 2011, the U.S. has conducted 25 such inspections).

“It’s only when we get to the base that the Russians know what missile we’re inspecting,” Gottemoeller said. Such inspections from both sides, Gottemoeller went on to explain, help avoid the kinds of crises and worst-case-scenario plans that plagued the Cold War.

“We depend on these short notice inspections to verify that Russia has been telling us the truth about the nuclear weapon systems they house,” Kerry said.

Creedon addressed some misconceptions about the Treaty, explaining that there are no unilateral constraints on the U.S. The Treaty limits both the U.S. and Russia. Nor is there a secret deal about the missile defense program in Europe.

However, the New START does not include reductions to non-strategic nukes as of yet. Creedon explained the administration’s potential willingness to negotiate their inclusion in future talks with Russia.

Georgia Senator Johnny Isakson questioned President Obama’s commitment to modernizing the U.S.’s nuclear stockpile. Gottemoeller strongly defended the administration’s commitment “to a safe, secure nuclear arsenal so long as nuclear weapons exist.”

Isakson also brought up Obama’s remarks to then-president Medvedev about having more flexibility after the upcoming election.

Gottemoeller dismissed the idea as nothing more than Obama “stating the obvious … It’s an election year both in the Russian Federation and in the United States of America. It’s not going to be a year for breakthroughs.” She also affirmed that in pursuing a policy of cooperation, the U.S. will not allow Russia veto power over NATO or U.S. missile defenses.

During his opening testimony, D’Agostino said the NNSA has challenged its people to be as efficient as possible in their work and investments. “This isn’t of course just about dollars. It’s about spending the dollars wisely,” and making sure the spending reflects the needs of the taxpayer, D’Agostino said.

Tennessee Senator Bob Corker criticized the administration for its lack of modernization effort and lack of leadership on the issue. “I have been highly disappointed with the follow-through on modernization,” Corker said.

“I’m losing faith in your ability to carry out what was agreed to,” Corker said to D’Agostino, accusing the administration of slow-walking modernization in the hope that future arms reductions would make modernization unnecessary. D’Agostino denied the charge, arguing that progress was being made, despite a lack of obvious advancement.

Kerry expressed some of his own frustrations with the lack of apparent progress in modernizing the U.S.’s arsenal. “Our word is as involved in this as your word, and I think it is critical that we follow through,” he said. However, he did acknowledge the role of the House of Representatives in not granting the budget NNSA required to fulfill its obligations.

 

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