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Bulletin 217: Local events; Obama's nuclear weapons policy legacy

March 8, 2016

  • Local New Mexico events: tonight, March 8th (Santa Fe), 9th (Albuquerque), and probably the 16th (Santa Fe)
  • President Obama’s last months: nuclear weapons policy dangers and opportunities (Part I)

Friends and colleagues –

First off, we wanted to make you aware of an event in Santa Fe tonight, March 8, at 6 pm, when author Sally Denton will discuss her newest book, The Profiteers: Bechtel and the Men Who Built the World, at Collected Works, 202 Galisteo St. (map). (Local members were alerted last week. My profound apologies to anybody local we missed but maybe a late notice is better than none.)

From the event blurb:

Today Bechtel is one of the largest privately held corporations in the world, enriched and empowered by a long history of government contracts and the privatization of public works, made possible by an unprecedented revolving door between its San Francisco headquarters and Washington . Bechtel executives John McCone, Caspar Weinberger, and George P. Shultz segued from leadership at the company to positions as Director of the CIA, Secretary of Defense, and Secretary of State, respectively.

Like all stories of empire building, the rise of Bechtel presents a complex and riveting narrative. In The Profiteers, Sally Denton, whom The New York Times called “a wonderful writer,” exposes Bechtel’s secret world and one of the biggest business and political stories of our time.

Although individual corporate incomes from the largest Department of Energy (DOE) contracts are typically shrouded in opaque private partnerships, Bechtel is almost certainly the largest single recipient of DOE dollars and, beyond even this, is a powerful force on Capitol Hill and in the broader “Deep State.”[1] One cannot fully understand how the U.S. makes nuclear weapons policy without understanding the role of Bechtel, Lockheed Martin, Booz Allen Hamilton, and the dozen or so other corporations in the DOE main nuclear cartel. Contractors receive more than 90% of DOE appropriations.

Next, the Study Group is holding at least two local meetings this month, on the 9th and (probably) on the 16th; for details see last week’s letter to local members. Since writing that letter our planned venue for the 16th developed serious plumbing problems, so we are moving the location and if necessary the date. We will send an update to our local lists. If you live in New Mexico and didn’t get the above letter directly, and you want to receive the occasional invitation and news update (such as an update on the upcoming Santa Fe meeting), please write Trish.

President Obama’s last months: nuclear weapons policy dangers and opportunities (Part I)

Thanks to generous donors and hosts, I (Greg) was in the Imperial Capital for most of the latter half of February. I met with a large number of actors in the nuclear weapons arena, first at the annual Nuclear Deterrence Summit and then in meetings on and around Capitol Hill.

This is a time when official Washington, and its legions of lobbyists, are highly conscious of the fact that this administration is nearing its end. For its part, the nuclear weapons industry is working to keep Obama’s pro-nuclear-weapons legacy (see below) intact, set in place new programs and funding commitments where possible and protect those commitments already made – and, through it all, renew ideological commitments and indoctrinate fresh faces, throughout the privatized nuclear enterprise and its thin governing structures. We and others are pulling in the opposite direction.

The central ring in this circus is the annual budget process. In early February, the Administration submitted its penultimate nuclear weapons budget to Congress, for fiscal year (FY) 2017. For commentary see our “Brief Informal Budget Heads-Up,” Feb 8; “Administration’s Proposed Nuclear Warhead Budget, Its Highest Ever,” Feb 9; and Bulletin 216: More on the budget, Feb 11).

Study Group board member Bob Alvarez has produced an excellent slide show highlighting some overall themes from the overall DOE budget request. (Nota bene: the mis-prioritization and mismanagement issues Bob highlights so well cannot be fixed without deep structural reform, which almost nobody in government is talking about. Except for the right wing, congressional reform ambitions are almost uniformly weak or absent when it comes to DOE and NNSA. And there is no visible dialogue about this, even among NGOs and academics, who – to speak frankly – are afraid to offend their foundation sponsors.)

In addition to departmental budget requests the annual classified joint Department of Defense (DoD) and DOE budget estimate covering the next ten years (“Section 1043 report”) has been or will be soon submitted to Congress.[2] The FY17 update to NNSA’s FY16 Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan (SSMP) also will be submitted.[3]

Meanwhile and in parallel, the Administration is developing the FY18 budget. It will be more or less complete by the time the new president has chosen his national security team and taken office. As such it will be one of the final ways – not the only one of course – for this President to put a stamp on his nuclear weapons policy legacy.[4]

So what is this president’s legacy, as regards U.S. nuclear weapons?

  • Over two terms, Obama has retired fewer warheads than any other post-Cold War president, in both absolute and relative terms.

  • Obama has launched a comprehensive effort to modernize everything in sight – everything nuclear-weapons related, that is. Warheads, factories, and delivery systems, with no significant weapon retirements going forward, are to be operated, maintained and upgraded in capability at a total cost of at least $1 trillion over 30 years, a figure I now believe significantly understates both DoD and DOE costs even in the most optimistic case.
U.S. nuclear weapon systems are being improved in accuracy, stealth, and/or flexibility in yield and fuzing; targeting, communications, and control are likewise being modernized (see, for example, our review from last spring; for 10-year cost estimates, see note 2). These current and planned investments, along with other developments, are stimulating a new nuclear arms race with Russia and China. They are also visibly undercutting U.S. nonproliferation goals, as could be seen for example at the 2015 Review Conference of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) (our review).
  • As a result of these aggressive plans, which are being mismanaged by government (Congress and the Executive) as well as by NNSA’s greedy contractors, inflation-corrected warhead spending has risen higher under Obama than under any prior president. It is planned to rise further each year, all the way through 2040.
This plan, huge as it is, is widely acknowledged to omit many of the investments needed to keep the warhead complex running. NNSA’s plan includes millions of square feet of empty buildings with no budgeted disposition pathway; it carries billions in deferred maintenance year after year; it requires about two billion dollars in unbudgeted security upgrades; it has no fully-budgeted plan for keeping certain key nuclear facilities operating (like PF-4 in Los Alamos); it is based on a grandiose stockpile plan with ever-rising costs – the “3+2 plan” – that is not even fully supported by the current military; and it includes expensive (and unfunded) new requirements to design, test, and prototype new warheads (see below).
  • New Start, supposedly a signature Obama achievement, provides limits to U.S. and Russian deployed strategic nuclear weapons as well as some mutual transparency measures, but New START set no limits on reserve arsenals, non-strategic warheads, and bomber-carried cruise missiles and bombs. New START limits enter into force February 5, 2018, just three years before the treaty expires (unless the parties agree to extend it to 2026). Meanwhile Russia has threatened to withdraw from New START if the U.S. enters Phase III deployment of its Aegis ballistic missile defense system in Europe, currently planned for 2018 (see also this graphical overview from Stars and Stripes).

  • The political bargain for ratification of New START by the U.S. Senate kick-started, and is the principal political basis for, the vast modernization effort now underway. New START has not constrained – in fact it has unleashed – today’s nuclear arms race. The New START process greatly muted criticism of modernization in and around the Democratic Party. As one prominent arms control leader said to us regarding the proposed new pit factory in Los Alamos: “It’s part of the deal we made.” In our view, New START was a mistake, not an accomplishment.
Despite the New START deal, important – indeed excellent – critiques of weapons modernization are emerging, with what effect it is too early to say. In budgetary terms these critiques typically aim for cuts in the range of 10% over 30 years, but they aim at a more stable and less threatening nuclear stockpile, and would make a tremendous difference.
  • There are no disarmament negotiations underway and none are planned. U.S. relations with Russia are poorer than at any time since the 1980s. This is the intentional result of seeking to impose a variety of costs on Russia, which the administration has chosen to view as an adversary which must be defeated. U.S.-Russian relations have been especially damaged by the eastward movement of NATO membership and deployments, the U.S.-supported coup in Ukraine and its various sequellae, and the U.S.-supported war against the Syrian government, all of which are far from resolved. Relations with China have deteriorated as well. Again, this has been a choice.
This Administration’s foreign policy, as we have frequently noted, has become largely captive to neoconservatives whose goal remains, to use the simplest terms, maintaining U.S. global domination. The Democratic Party and arms control organizations here and abroad, and their funders, with very few exceptions, passively or actively accept this ideological framework, even though it ends further prospects for arms control and disarmament. The leaders of these organizations have failed and are still failing in their duty of critique, and have thereby failed this administration and Congress.
  • Under Obama, the Navy completed retirement of the nuclear Tomahawk Land Attack Missile (TLAM-N). Other than this, I know of no significant positive changes in nuclear posture or deployments over the course of this administration.

  • A new program of new weapons design, surrogate testing, and prototyping has begun, distinct from Life Extension Programs (LEPs). There are two strands of legal authority for this, both of which began in the FY2013 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) and were further defined in subsequent FY2015 and FY2016 NDAAs. The first aims at reverse-engineering foreign nuclear weapons. The second strand aims at warhead complex “responsiveness” and would produce this “responsiveness” by designing, testing, and prototyping new kinds of nuclear weapons, following a plan produced by the NNSA nuclear lab directors, not federal employees at DOE or NNSA. The National Academy of Sciences, in a congressionally-mandated study, suggests institutionalizing peer competition between the three NNSA nuclear laboratories in novel designs. I want to discuss this further in the next Bulletin and so will refrain from adding details here.

Will Obama or his staff act to improve this record in any way? So far, with very few exceptions, the administration has been content to “kick the can down the road” on any number of nuclear weapons issues. Beneath the surface, however, controversies, contradictions, and difficulties are building up. Those will be the subject of the next Bulletin.

Greg Mello, for the Los Alamos Study Group


[1] For a complementary treatment of the Deep State see Peter Dale Scott, The American Deep State: Wall Street, Big Oil, and the Attack on U.S. Democracy (2014). For a dated but still useful overview of the powerful contractor cartel that runs the U.S. nuclear warhead complex, see Hill and Mello, “Competition - or Collusion? Privatization and Crony Capitalism in the Nuclear Weapons Complex” (2006). An up-to-date table of DOE and NNSA facility management contracts is here.

[2] Section 1043 of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2012 requires the preparation of an annual joint report by DOE and DOD regarding the plan for the nuclear weapons stockpile, complex, delivery systems, and command and control system. Classified “1043” reports have been published in May 2012, July 2013, May 2014, and April 2015. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has a mandate to conduct reviews of these plans; these are reports GAO-14-373 (covers two joint reports); GAO-15-536; and GAO-16-23.

[3] NNSA’s FY16 SSMP and budget materials were reviewed by GAO in the recently-released GAO-16-290. See also GAO’s prior reviews at GAO-14-45 and GAO-15-499.

[4] Constitutionally-questionable legislation notwithstanding, the president is the commander in chief of all U.S. military forces, including nuclear forces. In principle, the president could change deployments. In practice, he needs military support to do so. There is no sign that support has been cultivated.


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