Nuclear Security & Deterrence Vol. 18 No. 43
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Nuclear Security & Deterrence Monitor
Article 4 of 16
November 07, 2014

Shift in Modernization Support Seen in GOP Controlled Senate

By Todd Jacobson

Todd Jacobson
NS&D Monitor

With Republicans gaining control of the Senate this week in a wave of support during the mid-term elections, nuclear weapons experts and Congressional aides are expecting a shift toward support of modernizing the nation’s nuclear weapons complex in the GOP-controlled Congress, though the modernization aspirations of Republicans could run up against budgetary realities. Republicans grabbed control of the Senate with a cascade of wins in the upper chamber, flipping control of key Congressional committees with authority over the weapons complex. That means Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), an easy winner in his bid for reelection Nov. 4, is likely to take over as the chairman of the Senate Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee from Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), an ardent supporter of nuclear nonproliferation efforts but a skeptic of modernization plans.

The Senate Armed Services Committee will also be led by a Republican for the first time since 2007, with current ranking member Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) the likely candidate to take over as chairman of the panel. In the main subcommittee that deals with nuclear issues, the Strategic Forces Subcommittee, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) is likely the front-runner to chair the panel, though he would need a waiver to do so because he’s also slated to be chairman of the Senate Budget Committee. If Sessions does not take over the gavel, Congressional aides say Sens. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) and Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) are the most likely candidates to grab the gavel.

‘There is No Money Tree’

What each Republican Senator has in common is a strong interest in modernizing the nuclear deterrent and a history of criticizing the Administration’s plans for the nuclear deterrent. “If we did nothing else but reaffirm what the President wants to do and come up with funding so we have no further delays to the modernization program, that would be a big win and that’s probably not going to be very hard,” one Congressional aide told NS&D Monitor. “The difficult part is doing something beyond that.”

Notably, Republicans have been critical of the two-year slip to the schedule for the new Ohio class ballistic missile submarine and the delays to the completion of a new long-range standoff cruise missile warhead, but it’s unclear if they’ll be able to find the money to restore funding for those programs. “There is certainly a limited pool of money,” another Congressional aide said. “There is no money tree. It’s a matter of setting priorities.”

Tough Choices Loom

The rising costs of modernizing the deterrence could force even the Republicans to have to make tough choices, according to Kingston Reif, the director for Disarmament and Threat Reduction Policy at the Arms Control Association. The Congressional Budget Office has estimated it will cost $355 billion over the next 10 years to maintain and modernize the nation’s nuclear deterrent, which is $141 billion more than the Obama Administration suggested in 2011. “The planned budgets for nuclear modernizations so greatly exceed the likely available resources that even a Republican Congress will have to make tough choices,” Reif said. Stephen Young, a nuclear weapons analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists, said the modernization plan is “simply unaffordable given the limited role that nuclear weapons play in U.S. security, no matter who is in charge. The only question is when the changes will be made, because the massive funding increases that will be required don’t come until the 2020s.”

One other factor that could influence the funding flexibility for Republicans is a decision on the top-line budget for the committee and whether a firewall remains between defense and non-defense spending. Without a firewall between the two spending levels, Republicans could want to increase spending in the Defense Appropriations bill, which could have an impact on nuclear weapons spending in the Energy and Water legislation. “In limited money are they going to protect the long-range strike bomber, the Ohio class replacement, ICBM modernization, all the life extension programs and modification that go with it, in exchange for tanker refueling planes, the joint strike fighter, resources to fight ISIL, cyber threats and cyber attacks?” one staffer said. “Those are all the funding issues competing for it.”

‘The Nonproliferation Budget is in Jeopardy’

With even a limited pot of money for modernization efforts, the NNSA’s nonproliferation account is likely to suffer, according to Congressional aides and nuclear weapons experts. Feinstein was the biggest champion of NNSA’s nonproliferation work, calling it her biggest priority, and her subcommittee consistently increased nonproliferation funding. This year, the Senate Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee included $1.98 billion for the NNSA’s nonproliferation work, a $422.8 million increase over the Administration’s request. That represented a stark contrast to House and Senate authorizing committees and the House Appropriations Committee which largely matched the Administration’s $1.55 billion request for nonproliferation work in Fiscal Year 2015. That was a $399 million decrease from FY 2014 enacted funding levels. “The nonproliferation budget is in jeopardy,” a Congressional aide said. “I think they’ll take their lead from the Administration. If they continue to cut the nonproliferation programs, I don’t think you’ll have a champion on the Republican side.”

Young, however, noted that Alexander and Feinstein have worked well as partners on the Energy and Water subcommittee for years, and Alexander signed onto an August letter along with 25 other Senators that called for an increase in nonproliferation funding. “Sen. Alexander is both a strong supporter of nonproliferation programs and a critic of the vast price increases that have befallen so many programs in the nuclear weapons complex,” Young said. “For example, Sen. Alexander understands that the plans for the Uranium Processing Facility, even though it is a home state project for him, grew too expensive to bear, and he strongly supports a revised, less expensive approach that is being developed. So I would not expect anything like a blank check to start coming from this committee under his leadership.”

One complication is the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility, which is a large part of the nonproliferation budget. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) is a member of the subcommittee and a staunch supporter of the program, which the Administration tried—and failed—to put in cold standby in FY 2015. “That’s going to be part of the debate,” one Congressional aide said. “It’d be hard to cut nonproliferation without cutting into MOX.”

Weapons Complex Lawmakers Cruise to Reelection Wins

While the mid-term elections brought about upheaval in the Senate, incumbent lawmakers with key ties to the weapons complex largely had an easy time earning reelection. Reps. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), Chuck Fleischmann (R-Tenn.), Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.), Ben Ray Lujan (D-N.M.), Steve Pearce (R-N.M.), Michelle Lujan-Grisham (D-N.M.), Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), and Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) cruised to victories in their respective races, while incumbent Sens. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Tim Scott (R-S.C.), and Alexander were also comfortably victorious.

The one exception involved Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), who does not have a weapons complex site in his state but was the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee. Udall would have been in line to be the ranking member of the subcommittee under Republican control, but he was defeated by Republican Cory Gardner. There is no clear successor for him on the panel, though Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) and Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) are two of the top candidates to take over as the top Democrat on the panel.

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