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"Fiscal Cliff" Prompts Fresh Push for U.S. Nuke Spending Cut

By Diane Barnes

Global Security Newswire

A U.S. Minuteman 3 missile is test-fired from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., in May 2008. A group of 45 Democratic lawmakers is proposing cuts to spending on the ICBM fleet and other components of the nation's nuclear arms complex in the face of the budgetary "fiscal cliff" (U.S. Air Force photo). A U.S. Minuteman 3 missile is test-fired from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., in May 2008. A group of 45 Democratic lawmakers is proposing cuts to spending on the ICBM fleet and other components of the nation's nuclear arms complex in the face of the budgetary "fiscal cliff" (U.S. Air Force photo).

WASHINGTON -- Dozens of Democratic lawmakers have revived a call for $100 billion in U.S. nuclear weapons spending reductions over 10 years as Congress pushes to enact $1.2 trillion in deficit reductions by the beginning of January.

Washington must meet the deadline to avert automatic, across-the-board cuts to federal programs imposed under the 2011 Budget Control Act, but no deal appears imminent. The law's sequestration provisions are part of a series of scheduled tax increases and spending cuts anticipated to have far-ranging implications for the U.S. economy if they are allowed to begin taking effect next month.

Failure in Congress to negotiate a deficit spending agreement would leave open the potential for significant nuclear cuts under budget sequestration. The Defense Department last week received White House instructions to identify $500 billion in potential spending cuts that could be implemented to meet mandates under the budget control law.

"Unchecked spending on nuclear weapons threatens to push us over the fiscal cliff," Representative Edward Markey (D-Mass.) and 44 other House Democrats stated in a Dec. 4 letter to the top Democratic and Republican lawmakers in both chambers, citing the term popularly used to refer to the anticipated funding moves. "We know there is plenty of waste in the nuclear weapons budget."

The lawmakers singled out plans to refurbish approximately 400 B-61 nuclear gravity bombs, a project expected to cost roughly $10 billion. They also cited the scheduled construction of a new highly enriched uranium processing facility in Tennessee; the effort is projected to cost between $4.2 billion and $6.5 billion.

"Cuts to nuclear weapons programs upwards of $100 billion over the next 10 years are possible," the letter says. The United States is now on track to spend at least $640 billion through fiscal 2022 on the operation and upkeep of its nuclear deterrent, the Democrats cited the independent Ploughshares Fund as determining in a September estimate.

"Specific programs have been identified that can be decreased in scope or eliminated to bring our nuclear forces into better alignment with our 21st century needs," the lawmakers wrote. "Such cuts should be included in any final deal to avoid the fiscal cliff."

The letter also calls for reduced spending on the nation's ICBM fleet, as well as on B-52 and B-2 nuclear bomber aircraft.

Those recommendations are not likely to be welcomed by Republicans, who have already criticized President Obama for failing to keep up with nuclear complex spending levels pledged as the administration successfully pressed for Senate ratification of the U.S.-Russia New START arms control treaty.

"During the Senate’s consideration of the New START treaty, the president made many promises to achieve support for Senate ratification," House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee Chairman Michael Turner (R-Ohio) stated in March, referring to a decade-long, $85 billion nuclear weapons spending plan submitted by the administration in 2010. "With the president’s [fiscal year 2013] budget request, it is ... apparent that those promises have been broken."

The panel's top Democrat, though, on Wednesday urged Washington to zero any funding for "new nuclear weapons."

"If you see the budget, there's new monies in there to make more nuclear weapons," Representative Loretta Sanchez (Calif.) said at a defense policy luncheon in Washington. The lawmaker did not specify what nuclear arms programs she was referencing, but updates planned for the nation's B-61 bombs would reportedly involve replacing nearly every component of each weapon.

Sanchez called for further examination of "what nonproliferation will bring us," and for the New START pact to "actually be implemented."

Republican lawmakers at the Wednesday event did not address the nuclear arms spending question.

U.S. atomic arsenal spending is likely to face the chopping block even if a compromise is reached to prevent curbs under the 2011 legislation, according to findings from a planning exercise carried out earlier this year by the independent Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

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