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Pentagon Confirms it Requested Missile-Decommissioning Study

Air Force Capt. Allen Lamb and Capt. Bill Christians, combat crew commanders, stand on a platform at a missile silo in South Dakota in November 1964. The Pentagon on Friday confirmed it had requested environmental studies on shutting down some of the country's remaining 450 Minuteman 3 missile silos. Air Force Capt. Allen Lamb and Capt. Bill Christians, combat crew commanders, stand on a platform at a missile silo in South Dakota in November 1964. The Pentagon on Friday confirmed it had requested environmental studies on shutting down some of the country's remaining 450 Minuteman 3 missile silos. (LIFE photo/Minot Air Force Base)

The Pentagon on Friday confirmed reports it had requested an environmental study on shutting down some underground silos housing strategic missiles.

Defense Department spokeswoman Cynthia Smith said the Air Force assessment would aid the Pentagon in deciding where to carry out arms-control cuts mandated under the New START accord with Russia, the Great Falls Tribune reported.

"The [environmental assessment] will collect information from all three missile bases on the effects of eliminating no more than 50 [intercontinental ballistic missile] silos," the spokeswoman said. "While we don't know what the final force structure will be at this time, the administration remains committed to maintaining safe, secure and effective nuclear deterrence capabilities that include the ICBM leg of the nation's nuclear triad."

A number of congressional lawmakers last week criticized reports that the Air Force may have begun the studies, pointing to a federal law explicitly prohibiting the Pentagon from using appropriated fiscal 2014 funds to analyze the impacts of shutting down nuclear-missile silos.

Smith did not indicate where the department was getting the money to conduct the environmental assessments.

Air Force Global Strike Command currently fields approximately 450 silo-based Minuteman 3 missiles, apportioned evenly among three bases: Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana, Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota and Francis E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming. A reduction to a maximum of 420 land-based missiles is expected under New START.

The treaty obligates Russia and the United States by 2018 to limit their respective arsenals of long-range nuclear delivery vehicles, including intercontinental ballistic missiles, to 700 apiece, with each side permitted to hold 100 more systems in reserve.

Senator John Hoeven (R-N.D.) questioned how the Pentagon could legally proceed with the studies, in an interview with Minot Daily News.

"I don't think they can," said Hoeven, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee who worked to ensure the Defense Department would not receive any fiscal 2014 funds for conducting silo shut-down studies. "We put right in statute that they're not allowed to use funds to go forward. We'll see what their response is. Hopefully, they'll respond, 'OK we recognize that it's the law,' and so they stand down.

"If not, then we would have to take next steps," he continued.

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