WASHINGTON — The Obama administration plans to ask Congress to increase spending on the U.S. nuclear arsenal by more than $5 billion over the next five years as part of its strategy to halt the spread of nuclear weapons and eventually rid the world of them.
The administration argues that the boost is needed to ensure that U.S. warheads remain secure and work as designed as the arsenal shrinks and ages nearly 18 years into a moratorium on underground testing and more than two decades after large-scale warhead production ended.
The increase is also required to modernize facilities — some dating to World War II — that support the U.S. stockpile and to retain experts who "will help meet the president's goal of securing vulnerable nuclear materials worldwide . . . and enable us to track and thwart nuclear trafficking (and) verify weapons reductions," Vice President Joe Biden wrote in a Friday Wall Street Journal opinion piece.
The administration will seek an initial $600 million increase for nuclear weapons programs in the proposed 2011 budget it submits to Congress on Monday. That would increase annual spending on those programs by about 10 percent, to almost $7 billion.
The spending plan already has sparked controversy.
Some arms control advocates who ordinarily support the administration contend that the boost will fund unnecessary construction of new facilities that could give future administrations the ability to design and build new warheads, something that President Barack Obama has forsworn.
"Essentially the new facilities would allow an increase in the production of new warheads if they wanted to do that. They (the Obama administration) say they don't, but the next administration could," said Stephen Young of the Union of Concerned Scientists. "There are risks . . . for our overall non-proliferation goals."
Conservatives contend that with the arsenal to be slashed to no more than 1,675 deployed warheads under a new pact being finalized with Russia, U.S. security will depend on ending the testing moratorium and designing and fielding a new "modern" warhead.
"Nobody should kid themselves if they think there is a substitute for testing," said John Bolton, who served as the Bush administration's top nuclear arms control official and was an ambassador to the United Nations.
All 40 Republican senators and Sen. Joseph Lieberman, a Connecticut independent, implied in a letter to Obama last month that they'd block ratification of the new treaty with Russia unless he funds a "modern" warhead and new facilities at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and the Y-12 Plant in Oak Ridge, Tenn.
"We don't believe further reductions can be in the national security interest of the U.S. in the absence of as significant program to modernize our nuclear deterrent," wrote the senators, led by Republican Jon Kyl of Arizona.
Some experts said the administration apparently is hoping that its plan to boost spending on nuclear weapons will persuade enough Republicans to join Democrats in ratifying the new treaty with Russia and a global ban on underground testing known as the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.
Iran and North Korea, however, could argue that the plan contradicts Obama's pledge to cut the U.S. arsenal and seek a nuclear weapons-free world in their campaigns to blunt U.S.-led efforts to halt their nuclear programs.
Other countries could see increased U.S. spending for nuclear weapons as backsliding by Obama, whose strategy helped win him the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize.
"The tightrope the president has to walk is to put in enough funding to ensure everyone that the weapons will remain safe, secure and effective, but not so much that it looks like a new arms buildup," said Joseph Cirincione of the Ploughshares Fund, a foundation that underwrites arms control programs. "There is no question that some counties, friends and foes, will see the increased spending as a sign of U.S. hypocrisy."
Obama vowed to take "concrete steps towards a world without nuclear weapons" in an April 5 speech in the Czech Republic capital of Prague, warning that the growing danger of powers such as Iran or terrorist groups acquiring them puts "our survival" at risk.
He committed the U.S. to signing the new treaty with Moscow, de-emphasizing the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. defense strategy, joining the global ban on underground testing and bolstering the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the keystone of the international system to halt the spread of nuclear arms.
Obama, however, stipulated that "as long as these weapons exist, the U.S. will maintain a safe, secure and effective arsenal" to deter nuclear strikes on the U.S. or its allies.
Since the mid-1990s, the U.S. has used computer simulations, advanced experiments, inspections, monitoring and overhauls — the Stockpile Stewardship Program — to ensure the safety, security and effectiveness of its arsenal, now estimated at 2,200 deployed strategic warheads and 2,500 reserve strategic warheads.
A series of government and independent studies have certified the reliability of the arsenal. A September report by the JASONs, an independent advisory group, found that the "lifetimes of today's nuclear warheads could be extended for decades with no anticipated loss in confidence."
The JASONs' report, however, also added to concerns about a loss of U.S. nuclear weapons expertise, inadequate support for the Stockpile Stewardship Program and the need to modernize the Los Alamos and Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico and the Lawrence Livermore laboratory in California and five other sites of the "nuclear complex" where warheads are maintained, monitored, overhauled and stored.
The National Nuclear Security Administration, the civilian agency that oversees the U.S. arsenal, is pursuing a multi-billion dollar plan to "transform" the complex by demolishing old, unsafe and unused facilities and consolidating their functions in modern, high-security buildings.
ON THE WEB
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY