As the White House endeavors to secure Senate approval of the new START treaty, it is seeking to forge a grand bargain with Senator Jon Kyl: increased funding for the U.S. nuclear weapons enterprise—a long-standing priority of Kyl’s—in exchange for ratification. While this might sound like routine Washington bargaining, it would create a linkage that could actually harm U.S. national security interests.
The simple fact is that, quite apart from START, the failure of administrations and Congresses to invest adequately in maintaining our nuclear stockpile has already brought us to a perilous point. In particular, the national weapons laboratories and other infrastructure needed to maintain the safety, reliability, and security of our stockpile and ensure U.S. technological leadership in this pivotal area have been allowed to atrophy.
As early as 2001, this problem was emerging. Most of our nuclear laboratories and production plants had been built during World War II or early in the Cold War. Buildings were deteriorating, and we were losing capabilities, such as the capacity to construct plutonium pits, the triggers for most of our weapons. Everything from R&D to critical skills retention to the pensions of the men and women employed in our nuclear weapons labs was being shortchanged.
During the George W. Bush administration, efforts were made to address these problems. Some progress resulted, but Congress provided less funding than required to get the job done. In its early days, the Obama administration paid little attention to the backlog of needs in the weapons enterprise. To the contrary, the focus was on reducing the stockpile and banking the savings.
Fortunately, Senator Kyl continued to press for modernization, and as a result of his perseverance, the administration ultimately conducted its own review of the situation. Its conclusion: The advocates of modernization were right, and more had to be done to maintain our nuclear capabilities. Unfortunately, some view these essential investments in our nuclear weapons enterprise as a “chit” to be provided only if START is ratified.
The Obama administration’s decision to support increased investment in the maintenance of our nuclear weapons labs and stockpile is correct and long overdue. Yet it still falls short. For example, the sum proposed is only a third of that needed to replace the two largest Cold War era facilities. The administration’s position, moreover, comes with no guarantee of congressional support. Still, it constitutes a move in the right direction.
But the fact that the administration has revised its policy for the better is in itself no reason for any senator to endorse START. While senators may judge that the treaty deserves support on its merits, it is misguided to suggest that support is warranted as a quid pro quo for the administration’s belated decision to ramp up its investment in our nuclear defense complex. Neither Jon Kyl nor any other senator should cast a vote for START—or any other significant measure—because the president and his team have come to their senses on a matter as critical to our national security as the modernization of the weapons complex. The START treaty and beefed up funding for our nuclear enterprise are two separate issues that should remain distinct.
Spencer Abraham, chairman and CEO of the Abraham Group, was secretary of energy from 2001 to 2005.