Defense Bill Bars Unilateral Nuclear Reductions, Orders Posture Review

Article excerpt

ON OCTOBER 30, President Bill Clinton signed the fiscal year 2001 National Defense Authorization Act (H.R. 4205), which contains several provisions impacting the future of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. The act, a 500-page document addressing a wide range of military activities, maintains a previously legislated restriction on unilateral nuclear reductions below START I levels, calls for a strategic review of U.S. nuclear weapons policy, and mandates research on how to defeat hardened targets.

Despite efforts of several Democratic senators to the contrary, the act prohibits the United States from reducing its deployed strategic nuclear arsenal below START I levels of about 6,000 warheads until START II enters into force. First included in fiscal year 1998 legislation and originally intended to pressure Russia to ratify START II, the restriction prevents the president from unilaterally reducing U.S. strategic forces.

Senator Bob Kerrey (D-NE) has unsuccessfully offered language repealing the restriction every year since it was implemented. This year, support for the senator's amendment built after Republican presidential nominee George W. Bush announced May 23 that he would unilaterally reduce U.S. nuclear forces if elected. In June, Senator John Warner (R-VA) offered an alternative amendment that would have lifted the restriction after a strategic review, effectively barring Clinton from making reductions during the remainder of his term. (See ACT, July/August 2000.) Warner's amendment defeated Kerrey's in an essentially party-line vote but was subsequently removed during House-Senate committee negotiations after Warner reportedly made it known that he would not object if his language were dropped. Warner's staff declined to comment on the report.

As a result, the United States cannot lower its strategic nuclear arsenal below START I levels, despite the fact that both Congress and the executive branch support further reductions. The Senate ratified START II, which reduces the deployed strategic arsenal to 3,000-3,500 warheads, by an overwhelming majority in 1996, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff have approved cutting nuclear forces to 2,000-2,500 warheads in the context of a START III agreement, a move the White House also supports. (See ACT, June 2000.)

Russia ratified START II in May--removing the original justification for the restriction-but it made entry into force contingent on the Senate's passage of a group of 1997 agreements that extend START II's implementation deadline and amend the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. …