- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The Pentagon is facing strong opposition from Congress to an environmental study of Minuteman III missile silos that is needed before 50 land-based strategic missiles can be deactivated under President Obama’s disarmament agenda.

A bipartisan coalition of eight senators wrote to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel last week to urge the Pentagon not to begin the environmental study.

“Both the Senate and House versions of the fiscal year 2014 defense appropriations bills unambiguously prohibit funding a silo environmental assessment,” the senators said in a Dec. 18 letter that also was sent to Pentagon Comptroller Robert F. Hale.

“We therefore urge you not to begin such a study before it is clear whether funds will be available to complete it,” the senators said, adding that passage of defense appropriations legislation containing the funding restriction is expected in January.

The senators said that even though the recently passed defense authorization bill allows the Pentagon to begin the silo assessment, “Congress’ final response to the department’s budget request will come through the fiscal year 2014 appropriations process.”

The Obama administration has drawn up a plan to shut down one Minuteman III squadron and destroy its 50 in-ground silos by 2017. The rationale behind the plan is said by the administration to be compliance with the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia.

Critics in Congress have said there is no requirement under the treaty to cut land-based strategic missiles.

The Pentagon must conduct the environmental study before launching its plan to dismantle the 50 Minuteman IIIs. A U.S. official said the study would be followed by the removal of the missiles from silos by October, and then destruction of the silos beginning in May 2016.

Current Minuteman III missile fields are located at F.E. Warren Air Force Base, Wyo., Malmstrom Air Force Base, Mont., and Minot Air Force Base, N.D.

The letter was signed by Sens. Max Baucus, Montana Democrat; Michael B. Enzi, Wyoming Republican; Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican; Jon Tester, Montana Democrat; John Barrasso, Wyoming Republican; John Hoeven, North Dakota Republican; Heidi Heitkamp, North Dakota Democrat; and Mary L. Landrieu, Louisiana Democrat.

Critics of the administration plan said destroying the missile silos, instead of just removing the missiles from their silos, could undermine U.S. strategic nuclear deterrence.

Strategic analysts say new threats to strategic submarines, or a large-scale buildup of nuclear arsenals by China, Russia or other states could require adding ground-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) to compensate. That option would be lost if the silos are destroyed.

The plan to cut land-based ICBMs was not announced as part of the Pentagon’s April 2010 Nuclear Posture Review. All 450 Minuteman IIIs are being redesigned from three warheads to a single warhead.

Mr. Obama announced in June that he plans to make further cuts in U.S. nuclear warheads from the New START level of 1,550 to about 1,000 warheads.

Russian strategic forces commander Col. Gen. Sergei Karakayev said in a speech Dec. 17 that Moscow plans to keep 1,500 nuclear warheads, a level that would render Mr. Obama’s announced plan for further warhead cuts unilateral disarmament.

Mr. Obama and Mr. Hagel are advocates of eliminating all nuclear weapons.

A Pentagon spokeswoman had no comment.

CHINESE MEDIA ATTACK HAGEL

China’s designated state-run attack media outlet has fired the latest shot in the U.S.-Chinese war of words over the near collision of a U.S. guided missile cruiser and a Chinese navy vessel.

The Global Times newspaper, affiliated with the Communist Party’s People’s Daily, on Saturday criticized Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel for his remarks calling Chinese naval behavior “irresponsible.”

The news outlet, known for its jingoistic diatribes, said Mr. Hagel “shows U.S. hegemony addiction.”

The defense secretary told reporters last week that a Chinese warship sailed within 100 yards of the USS Cowpens during the Dec. 5 incident.

“That action by the Chinese, cutting in front of their ship, 100 yards out in front of the Cowpens, was not a responsible action,” Mr. Hagel told reporters at the Pentagon on Dec. 12. “It was unhelpful. It was irresponsible.”

Global Times said Mr. Hagel did not mention that the confrontation took place “on China’s doorstep” and that the Cowpens was shadowing the Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning, a charge a defense official said is untrue.

“The U.S. has become used to its hegemony on high seas, which international society seems to tolerate, and that makes the U.S. Navy tend to forget the difference between the high sea and its territorial waters, or mistake the South China Sea with the Caribbean,” the newspaper said.

The article demanded that the Navy now must consider China’s “interests” and “feelings” while sailing the South China Sea.

The paper then issued a veiled threat: “In the future the Chinese navy will send more fleets further into the ocean along with the expansion of China’s interests, making more conflicts with the U.S. possible.”

“One day, China will teach the U.S. that responsibility is not as simple as the way the U.S. sees it.”

FEUDING TERRORISTS IN SYRIA

Good news for U.S. counterterrorism efforts against al Qaeda: U.S. officials familiar with intelligence reports say divisions are growing between an al Qaeda terrorist group in Syria and other Islamist rebels.

The al Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, recently battled groups of the Islamic Front in gunbattles and verbal sparring on the groups’ Twitter accounts.

Officials say the fighting appears to be intensifying after a shootout this month near Aleppo between ISIL and Ahrar al-Sham, a key group in the recently formed Islamic Front coalition of Islamist rebels.

The latest flare-up of interterrorist violence was unique in one respect: The other major al Qaeda rebel group, the Nusra Front, did not join the infighting.

ISIL is opposing other Islamist rebel groups because it believes the Islamic Front groups and other non-Islamist rebels are pawns of foreign powers.

The anti-ISIL rebels view that group as a threat to its goal of creating an Islamist state in Syria.

Before the early December clash, the two factions engaged in minor skirmishes that likely were not coordinated actions, and members of both sides had sought to tamp down the fighting.

But during the recent battle near Aleppo, ISIL fighters attacked Ahrar al-Sham rebels, killing a small number of fighters and detaining several others. That, in turn, triggered an exchange of verbal threats on social media between the groups.

Michael Morrell, who recently retired as deputy CIA director, told CBS News in September that the Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham are the two most effective rebel groups in Syria. He said he fears rebels linked to al Qaeda eventually will take power in Syria.

Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter @BillGertz.

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