During a panel at today’s Carnegie International Nuclear Policy Conference, Acting U/S for Arms Control and International Security Gottemoeller flatly stated “We are not modernizing.”  She may have meant warheads, or something else, but it was succinct.  And damaging.  It’s damaging because it needs urgent clarification–if this budget cycle shows further degradation of the modernization commitments made in 2010, it will kill arms control.

Having played a bit part in the work that lead to the Senate’s resolution of advice and consent to the New START Treaty, I think it would have been nice to know where we are now, then.  Particularly given what we were told in 2010.

The seven major laboratories and production plants, plus the Nevada Test Site, must be able maintain a responsive, sustainable capability to support modernization and sustainment of our nuclear warheads in the absence of nuclear testing.  Likewise, we must maintain credible and effective warhead delivery capability for the warheads the weapons complex sustains.

In 2008, citing concerns from the directors of our national laboratories, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Admiral Mullen, and the Commander of Strategic Command, Kevin Chilton, stated in a letter to the then-Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee’s Subcommittee on Strategic Forces that “The United States is the only nuclear weapons state not currently modernizing its nuclear capabilities and supporting infrastructure.”

 They made that statement in 2008, following several years of contentious, political and rarely useful debate over funding our nuclear weapons complex.  Starting in 2009, this tide began to change.  The credit goes first to the bipartisan Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States, chaired by former Defense Secretaries Schlesinger and Perry, which noted in its final report that

So long as modernization proceeds within the  framework of existing U.S. policy, it should encounter minimum political difficulty.

Then, in a speech in September 2009, Secretary Gates made clear his views on how modernization should proceed, and its explicit linkage with arms control.  He stated we needed to increase our investments in our national nuclear labs and that we did not seek new capabilities but rather a credible way forward on existing weapons.  He summarized the critical link between modernization and the New START Treaty:

 I also believe that these capabilities are enablers of arms control and our ability to reduce the size of our  nuclear stockpile.  When we have more confidence in the long-term viability of our weapons systems, then our       ability to reduce the number of weapons we must keep in the stockpile is enhanced.  So I see this modernization  effort, if you will, as a vehicle and an enabler of arms  control and stockpile reduction.

Republicans were/are assured of $85 billion over the next 10 years for the Complex, and for delivery vehicles, $100 billion over the next decade.  Lifetime extensions for our warheads were funded and plans were on the table for modernization of delivery vehicles.

In the cover letter to the April 2010 NPR, Secretary Gates stated that, with regard to planning, programming and budgeting for the Nation’s nuclear weapons complex,

These investments, and the NPR’s strategy for warhead life extension, represent a credible modernization plan necessary to sustain the nuclear      infrastructure and support our Nation’s deterrent. They will also enable further arms reductions by allowing us to hedge against future threats without the need for a large non-deployed stockpile.

The Directors of the Los Alamos, Sandia and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories wrote in 2010 that:

[W]e believe that the proposed budgets provide adequate support to sustain the safety, security, reliability and effectiveness of America’s nuclear deterrent within the limit of 1,550 deployed strategic warheads established by the New START Treaty with adequate confidence and acceptable risk.

They also said that the plan as laid out:

clearly responds to many of the concerns that we and others have voiced in the past about potential future- year funding shortfalls, and it substantially reduces  risks to the overall program.

Now, we understand that plans are on the table to rid ourselves of almost all of these commitments.

We are now come to the critical years.  With problems in each leg of the American Triad, an un-self-effacing Prague agenda in the Oval Office, and modernizing nuclear powers the world over, our extended and basic deterrent is threatened.  At present rates, and given the failures of the B-61 Lifetime Extension Program, we are approaching a deterrent cliff:  Most delivery systems now in the force will face maximum operating lives within the next two decades—and they will take decades to replace.

To date, we have no ICBM follow-on and we now apparently view a future Triad to include the B-61, but no ALCM.  Allowing American ICBMs and ALCMs to disappear does not reduce any risk of war.  Indeed, such actions may add to risks. If a majority of American nuclear weapons continue to be deployed on submarines, then we may expect not just atrophy of the alliances based on visible nuclear weapons but also increased anxieties from likely targets of a Trident SLBM. By 2030, this now looks to be the likeliest outcome.

This Administration does not even have a consistent position on future negotiations to limit or reduce certain types and kinds of American nuclear weapons, a comment on which I would be happy to expound in discussion.  There also appears to be no controlling the requirements-generation processes for any aspect of the nuclear weapons complex, again, something on which I would he happy to further comment.

President Obama, in a letter to Senator Lamar Alexander wrote in December 2010 that “nuclear modernization requires investment for the long-term, in addition to the [promises made in 2010]. That is my commitment to the Congress—that my Administration will pursue these programs and capabilities for as long as I am President.”

Or at least until today.

Maybe someone should ask Gottemoeller to clarify her remark, and maybe we should read the budget more carefully than ever before.