Montana Democratic Sens. Jon Tester and Max Baucus (shown), along with six other senators, sent a letter earlier this month to Department of Defense officials seeking assurances the department won't fund an environmental assessment on active Minuteman III silos until after Congress completes 2014 DOD appropriations legislation. (AP)
GREAT FALLS, MONT. — Montana Democratic Sens. Jon Tester and Max Baucus, along with six other senators, sent a letter earlier this month to Department of Defense officials seeking assurances the department won’t fund an environmental assessment on active Minuteman III silos until after Congress completes 2014 DOD appropriations legislation.
This week, President Barack Obama signed the compromise version of the National Defense Authorization Act, which permits the DOD to begin an environmental study related to the current force of 450 ICBMs, a third of which are assigned to Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana.
The compromise version would withhold 50 percent of the funds for the environmental study until the defense department gives Congress a plan that includes various options for the nuclear force structure under New START, including Hagel’s preferred option. The bill also requires the commander of Strategic Command to provide Congress an assessment of those options, including Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s recommendation. That commander reports to Hagel and is unlikely to contradict him.
The environmental assessment has been a sticking point for Congress this year, and both houses have moved to pass legislation stalling the study that the Air Force is required, by existing federal law, to conduct before making any changes to the structure of the ICBM force.
“Prior to taking any action, the department should await a formal decision by Congress on Fiscal Year 2014 funding. We recognize that a continuing resolution creates difficult circumstances for the Department to effectively manage its responsibilities. However, we also do not believe that such a resolution should be construed as approval of the Department’s request. Nor should it be considered as the final word of Congress on this matter,” the senators wrote in the letter to Hagel and Department of Defense Comptroller Robert Hale.
The treaty, ratified by the Senate in 2010, limits the United States and Russia to no more than 1,550 deployed warheads; 800 deployed and nondeployed ICBM launchers; submarine-launched ballistic missile launchers and heavy bombers; and to have reduced their deployed ICBMs, SLBMs and heavy bombers equipped for nuclear armaments to no more than 700.
According to data from the State Department, the U.S. has 809 deployed ICBMs, SLBMs and heavy bombers; Russia has 473. The U.S. has 1,688 warheads on deployed ICBMs, SLBMs and nuclear warheads counted for deployed heavy bombers; Russia has 1,400. The U.S. has 1,015 deployed and nondeployed launchers of ICBMs, SLBMs and heavy bombers; Russia has 894. The deadline to reach those limits is February 2018.
The last B-52G accountable under New START was destroyed just before Christmas by sawing off the plane’s tail, rendering it useless.
The latest defense bill also prohibits the DOD from converting B-52s to non-nuclear aircraft without the same information requested by Congress for environmental assessment funds.