Jeffrey LewisNNSA’s Big Budget, START and CTBT

The Administration has proposed a massive increase in funding for the nuclear weapons complex, increasing the budget for NNSA by 13.4 percent (over what the FY2010 appropriation.)

John Fleck has an excellent write-up of the announcement in the Albuquerque Journal.

The purpose of announcing the massive increases in funding for the nuclear weapons enterprise — stockpile support (25 percent increase), infrastructure (5 percent) and other categories is political — is presented as the right thing to do, which it may be, but it is also intended to find votes in the Senate for ratification of the START Follow-on Treaty and, at a later date, the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. The budget release follows a major op-ed by Vice President Biden in the Wall Street Journal that makes explicit the link between funding the complex and achieving the agenda laid out in Prague:

Our budget request is just one of several closely related and equally important initiatives giving life to the president’s Prague agenda. Others include completing the New START agreement with Russia, releasing the Nuclear Posture Review on March 1, holding the Nuclear Security Summit in April, and pursuing ratification and entry into force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

Some of my friends are complaining that by funding the complex first and asking for START (and CTBT) ratification second, the Administration is squandering its only leverage.

I worry about that, too. But I think this is the right approach, given the structure of the Senate and the President’s temperament.

Let’s hold aside, for the moment, the argument that the complex is deteriorating and people are leaving. I suspect that lack of funding isn’t the primary challenge facing the labs nor is more money a sufficient remedy for their woes. But more money is probably a necessary element of a comprehensive strategy to fix the labs. This is, all things considered, probably the correct policy decision.

The Politics of Treaty Ratification

But is it good politics? Barack Obama said he preferred to be a great one term president, rather than a mediocre two-term President. No one believe him of course, because the two are often correlated — the ability to achieve policy successes depends in large part on the same political acumen that aids reelection.

There are basically two approaches to getting to 67 votes in the United States Senate to ratify an arms control treaty. One option is to peel off just enough Republican Senators, convincing them to break ranks with their party in exchange for specific benefits or out of fear of losing reelection. The other is to secure the support of both the Senate Majority and Minority Leaders, so that the issue does not become partisan at all.

I hate to point this out, but only one of these two strategies has ever worked for an arms control treaty (at least as far as I can tell.) Securing the support of the opposition leadership is essential to avoiding a straight party-line vote that is more about partisanship than the national interest. This is why Michael Krepon, who edited the wonderful Politics of Treaty Ratification, blogged that “ratification usually happens by comfortable majorities or not at all.” John Isaacs made this point, as well.

This is the context in which to understand Senator Jon Kyl’s opposition to the various arms control treaties: He is Minority Whip and aspires to be the leading Republican voice on security issues. Perhaps, like another aspiring whip, he imagines even greater offices are within his grasp. His strategy to achieve these things is to make votes on arms control treaties a test of Senator’s Republican bona fides.

To worry that Senator Kyl might “pocket” this concession and ask for ever more rather misses the point. Of course, he’s going to do that (and more)! He’s not an idiot, after all. But nor is Senator Kyl the proper object of a ratification strategy — or at least he shouldn’t be.

The practical reality is that the Administration has to bring a majority of the Republican caucus along to support START and CTBT — even if fewer votes are technically required. If you look at the dozen of so candidates the Administration might hope to “peel off” — such as John McCain or Richard Lugar — few of them will be eager about the prospect of crossing over on a party line vote. The key to ratification has always been Mitch McConnell — and will be as long as he is Senate Minority Leader.

Depoliticizing START and CTBT

Which brings us to the budget roll-out. I don’t have any special insight into how Vice President Biden — who is spear-heading ratification process for START and CTBT — is going about cutting a deal. But I seem to recall he is familiar with the Senate.

If the strategy is to avoid, to the greatest extent possible, politicizing either treaty, starving the nuclear weapons complex probably won’t create leverage with the Senate Minority Leader and might, in fact, backfire. If you give Republicans a choice between a well-funded nuclear weapons complex and a talking point to conflate the Prague agenda with unilateral disarmament — which is a favorite claim by Senator Kyl — most will understandably choose the latter. “Unilateral disarmament” is the “death panel” of the nuclear weapons debate. The goal, then, is to take away Kyl’s talking points, rather than to horse-trade with Senators. (That comes later.)

Frankly, this is probably the only strategy an Obama Administration would undertake. It is difficult to imagine this President taking the bare-knuckled approach that we might have gotten from, say, Lyndon Johnson. However much juice his presidency has left — and that is the popular parlor question of the moment, for people in Georgetown who can afford parlors — for better or for worse, Barack Obama has his own style.

I cannot, for example, imagine Obama, as LBJ did, holding a meeting in the buff at the White House swimming pool or dictating to poor Doris Kearns from the commode. For better, or for worse.

So, we are left with the strategy of attempting to depoliticize the treaties, recognizing that there will be some additional horse-trading at a later date. It might not always succeed, but it is probably the only strategy that will.


  1. Kingston (History)

    For the record, here’s what McConnell had to say about the CTBT last April:

    “I also disagree with the Administration’s recent pledge to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, a treaty that we have voluntarily abided by for years. Before the President rushes to fulfill this goal, America needs assurance that our nuclear stockpile is both reliable and safe. As our nuclear stockpile ages, this assurance becomes increasingly important.

    There are only two ways to ensure the safety of our nuclear stockpile: through actual tests, or by investing in a new generation of warheads. At the moment, the Administration isn’t willing to do either. And when it comes to deterrence, this represents a serious dilemma. As Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said: ‘… there is absolutely no way we can maintain a credible deterrent and reduce the number of weapons in our stockpile without resorting [either] to testing our stockpile or pursuing a modernization program.’”

  2. anon

    Without modernization of existing stockpile, CTBT ratification is in limbo.

    Modernizing a few buildings will not suffice.

  3. Jeffrey Lewis (History)

    Ah, the view from the complex.

    Yes, as you are well aware — but chose to not mention — the budget includes substantial increases for directed stockpile work, including LEPs for the W76, B61, and a common approach for the W78/W88.

  4. anon (History)

    Kingston’s quote is worth a second look. McConnell is wrong. You don’t need to test or replace warheads to make sure that they are reliable and safe. That would only be true if current warheads were either unsafe or unreliable. They are safe and reliable, now, and will remain safe and reliable in the future if we take the steps we need to maintain and sustain the warheads we have. That’s the point of of adding funding to the infrastructure and paying attention to the people. These are the two things you need to maintain and sustain the arsenal — the right facilities and the right people. You don’t need to test or replace them if you have the right people and places to take care of the warheads you have now.

    The Administration is starting to change the narrative. And this is how it must change. You can’t start from the presumption that there is something wrong with the warheads and we need to debate the best way to fix them (LEP or RRW). You need to start from the presumption that there is nothing wrong with the warheads, except they are aging, and we need to maintain the capabilities to address the needs of aging warheads.

  5. Jeffrey Lewis (History)


    Very well said.

  6. MarkoB

    Or perhaps one could have a stockpile geared towards deterrence in which case one could do with gun assembled fission weapons, say. that’s enough for deterrence.

    saying “we need to maintain an effective (reliable) deterrent” really means “we need to maintain the present stockpile” which really means “we need to maintain the stockpile and the wider complex geared towards first strike counterforce”.

    this already tells you everything you need to know about the npr. if Jeffrey’s suggestion on strategy, minimum deterrence and deterrence only against nuclear attacks, were adopted you don’t need W88’s etc.

    W76 etc are over-determined from the perspective of deterrence.

    Jeffrey’s point about the politics, though, is sad but true. Without an active citizenry pushing congress such deal making will always hold court. I think Robert Dahl was right when he said that the big problem with nukes is the politics of guardianship.

  7. MK (History)

    If Senator McConnell and his caucus reject the new START and CTB treaties, funding to implement modernization of the nuclear weapon complex is likely to become very iffy. U.S. nuclear security, in my view, requires follow through on both sides of the aisle.

  8. Azr@el (History)

    Maybe we can outsource NASA (i.e. the welfare check for southern aerospace) to the Iranians. The recent kavoshgar 3 suborbital life science shot looked like it went up a shoestring and duct tape budget. And the Simorgh/(Unha with Safir engines) can’t cost more than than a new 7 series F01; if that. Do more with less, eh.

  9. anon

    “Ah, the view from the complex.”

    Ah come on Jeff… you darn well know what LEP is… it ain’t modernization.

  10. anon

    “You don’t need to test or replace warheads to make sure that they are reliable and safe. That would only be true if current warheads were either unsafe or unreliable. They are safe and reliable, now, and will remain safe and reliable in the future if we take the steps we need to maintain and sustain the warheads we have.”

    You seem to have a very limited knowledge of the subject. Otherwise, you would not make such an ignorant statement.

    But this site seems only interested in its agenda – not the truth, so, you’ll be well defended.

  11. Stephen Young

    anon, perhaps you are not familiar with JASON? Those are the independent scientists who are fully briefed, with all the appropriate clearances, and a long history of looking at the stockpile. One of them might have even figured out how to make the first thermonuclear bomb work, for goodness sake.

    They have no stake in this game, except some interest in that thing you call “truth.” They say that the arsenal is indeed reliable, and that we can maintain the existing arsenal for decades with the current programs to do so. You can read about it here:

    Heck, if you read this blog, you might have seen Jeffrey write about it here:

    And those folks also tell me that, in fact, the lab people they talk to, who do the day to day work on the arsenal, say that the stockpile is actually doing pretty well, thank you very much, with the important exceptions noted in the JASON report.

  12. George William Herbert (History)

    Anon writes:
    You seem to have a very limited knowledge of the subject. Otherwise, you would not make such an ignorant statement.

    Safety and reliability of the current weapons and potential future weapons is not something amenable to simple blog-style statements.

    To a large degree, we’ve hashed this one out multiple times before. To get to the next level of educated discussion requires a forum where the participants all have appropriate and current CNWDI / Sigma compartment clearances to talk technical details. Doing that without capture of the participants “into the complex” – making it not a sufficiently independent review – is difficult.

  13. anon (History)

    Actually, my knowledge of the subject is pretty broad, and pretty deep, but I’ve chosen not to provide the information to prove that. I’ll admit that I’m not a physicist, and I don’t work for NNSA or the labs, but my thin expertise on the weapons science only looks like a lack of knowledge when compared with the depth of my knowledge on other nuclear posture/policy issues. And I have access to all the right players in the game, so I do have real information and expertise at my fingertips.

    Fact is, our weapons almost certainly would go boom if we asked them too, and would do so with pretty devestating effect, and would do so with almost the exact same level of reliability they had 10, 20, and 30 years ago. And that confidence would degrade only slightly in the near future, which provides us with the time to address issues before it degrades more than slightly.

    But, thanks for the snark, anyway. I don’t think we should pursue this, as Jeffrey does not need the noise here.

  14. Stephen Schwartz (History)

    Bravo sir, and I appreciated the Ian Richardson/Francis Urquhart reference. So it is apropos for me to add:

    “You might think that; I couldn’t possibly comment.”

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