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GOP senator: Obama budget gap shows 'gradual retreat' on nuclear updates

Lindsey Graham says cuts to intercontinental ballistic missile study could be a harbinger of administration's strategy.

Sen. Lindsey Graham said Thursday that he views a Defense Department misstep in omitting fiscal 2012 funds for a future-ICBM study as a harbinger of the Obama administration's "gradual retreat" from nuclear modernization commitments made last fall.

"It is a sign of things to come," said the South Carolina Republican, speaking at a Washington-area conference on nuclear deterrence. "It is a program that was thought to be valuable ticket-pricewise; it's not that expensive. But it is what I fear the most: a gradual retreat, beginning on the margins, that goes to the heart of the matter."

Pentagon officials said this week that their 2012 budget request, submitted to Congress on Monday, did not include any funds for a study of technology options that could replace today's Minuteman 3 ICBMs.

Leaving the budget details to the Defense Department, the White House remains "committed to modernizing the stockpile," a senior administration official said yesterday in response to Graham's comments.

The administration in November had pledged to spend $26 million per year, including this year and next, on a "Capabilities-Based Assessment" already under way for the ICBM follow-on system. After completing that study, the Pentagon in fiscal 2012 would launch a more detailed "Analysis of Alternatives" for the future ICBM, it said in an updated report for Congress on nuclear modernization plans.

Such analyses are typically precursors to initiating a major research and development effort, followed by the procurement of military hardware.

Defense Comptroller Robert Hale's office confirmed on Wednesday that the Pentagon had not allocated any 2012 funds for these study efforts, as first reported by Global Security Newswire a day earlier.

Air Force spokesman Andre Kok said Thursday the service would spend $26 million on analyses of a future ICBM, but this would be over a three-year period between fiscal 2012 and 2014. Marilyn Thomas, a budget deputy to the Air Force comptroller, said Monday, though, that no funds were allocated for this purpose in 2012.

The Minuteman 3 arsenal, which today numbers 450 missiles deployed at Air Force bases in three Western states, is slated to retire from service in 2030. To help meet limits established by the U.S.-Russian New START agreement, Washington will reduce its ICBM arsenal in coming years to 420 deployed missiles, each with a single warhead.

The White House commitment last fall to fund the future-ICBM studies was part of a high-profile effort to win Senate Republican votes in favor of ratifying the pact, which caps deployed nuclear warheads at 1,550 and strategic delivery systems at 700. An additional 100 ICBMs, bombers and submarine-launched missiles can remain in reserve.

Just before Christmas, the Senate approved the accord in a 71-26 vote that included 13 Republicans.

Graham, who had earlier said he was inclined to back ratification, ultimately voted against the measure. The lawmaker said Moscow intends to use language in the treaty's preamble to block Washington's plans for missile defense installations in Europe, and that was a risk he could not support taking.

The Senate minority whip, Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., had spent months negotiating with the White House for additional spending on replacing aging nuclear bombers and missiles, updating stockpile warheads and improving the Cold War-era facilities that support the arsenal.

Hoping to win what was seen at the time as Kyl's pivotal vote on New START ratification, Obama said the government would spend an additional $4.1 billion on the nuclear complex over the next five years, on top of an earlier promise to increase funds by $10 billion in the coming decade.

Funds for nuclear modernization are now expected to total $85 billion over the next decade.

"The administration said all the right things during the START negotiations about modernization," said Graham, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee who sits on its strategic forces panel.

"If you look at what [President Obama] has said publicly and what this administration has committed to over the next decade, including agreeing to request even more for modernization than key opponents of New START were asking for, $80 billion dollars over the next 10 years is a very solid commitment," said the senior administration official, who was not authorized to address the issue publicly and provided written comment yesterday on condition of anonymity.

Though Kyl pocketed a political success in boosting the modernization budget, the Senate's No. 2 Republican was not persuaded to vote in favor of the pact. He led a quarter of the Senate -- none of them Democrats -- in opposing ratification, but the White House prevailed in getting the chamber's approval.

"Senator Kyl's whole goal was for START to get modernization money," said Graham, speaking at the conference sponsored by the Exchange Monitor Publications and Forums. "I know Jon Kyl and I know Lindsey Graham will not let the Congress get away with cutting these programs without a fight."

The 2012 budget proposal does include a funding boost for the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration to nearly $12 billion in the next fiscal year. The agency oversees the maintenance of the nuclear warhead stockpile, among other responsibilities.

In addition, the Pentagon's 2012 investment in modernizing nuclear weapon platforms features $197 million for research and development on a new Air Force long-range bomber, the Defense Department said this week. That is an early installment on $3.7 billion to be spent over the next five years or so in developing the nuclear-capable aircraft. A total of 80 to 100 of the aircraft are to be built, with fielding commencing in the mid-2020s, defense officials said.

The 2012 spending blueprint also includes $1.07 billion to develop a new ballistic missile submarine to replace today's Ohio-class vessels. The so-called "SSBN(X)" in December entered an initial developmental phase in which its design specifications will be determined.

These programs are part of an overall $671 billion Pentagon budget package for the new fiscal year, which begins on October 1.

Asked if the missing dollar figures for the ICBM study were significant enough to draw notice on Capitol Hill, Graham said the omission might not be immediately detrimental but could portend a dangerous trend for the long term.

"Twenty-six million dollars? If you do not make that commitment, what ripple effect does that have on other programs that are in the same type of [weapons] category?" Graham said. "That does bother me."

Meanwhile, the Air Force insists it will continue working this year on the Capabilities-Based Assessment for the new ground-based ballistic missile, and intends to complete it by June. The service still plans to initiate the more detailed Analysis of Alternatives in fiscal 2012, as well, said Kok, the Air Force spokesman.

The two studies are expected to explore "new modes of ICBM basing that enhance survivability and further reduce any incentives for prompt launch," according to a Nuclear Posture Review completed by the Pentagon last year. This could include a look at mobile ICBMs that would be less vulnerable to adversary attack than today's silo-based missiles, defense sources said.

However, Kok was unable to explain exactly how the Air Force would pay for either study -- this year or next -- without the $26 million in annual funds pledged by the administration's November report to Congress.

"The Air Force plans to use internal funding in [fiscal 2012] to begin AOA activities," the spokesman told GSN. He said further detail on the total amount and source of these dollars was not immediately available.

"Additional funding requirements for the study activities will be addressed" in the future-year budget beginning in fiscal 2013, Kok said.