Inside the Ring: Senate to block ICBM cuts

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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.

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About the Author
Bill Gertz

Bill Gertz

Bill Gertz is a national security columnist for The Washington Times and senior editor at The Washington Free Beacon (www.freebeacon.com). He has been with The Times since 1985.

He is the author of six books, four of them national best-sellers. His latest book, “The Failure Factory,” on government bureaucracy and national security, was published in September 2008.

Mr. ...

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