Congressional Republicans on Wednesday vowed to block the Obama administration from sharply cutting the U.S. nuclear force, calling potential reductions of as much as 80 percent in the number of deployed weapons "reckless lunacy."
Pointing to the growing number of trouble spots, from Iran to Syria to Egypt, members of the House Armed Services Committee said any significant cuts would undermine the U.S. ability to deter aggression. The Associated Press reported on Tuesday that the administration is weighing several options for new reductions from the current treaty limit of 1,550 deployed strategic warheads.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the committee that no decision has been made and maintaining the current level is one of the options. But that did little to assuage GOP lawmakers.
"I just want to go on record as saying that there are many of us that are going to do everything we possibly can to make sure that this preposterous notion does not gain any real traction," said Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz.
The most modest option under discussion would return the United States to a level not seen in more than half a century, when the Soviet Union and the U.S. pushed ahead in a Cold War nuclear arms race. The administration is weighing at least three options for lower total numbers, cutting to around 1,000 to 1,100, 700 to 800, or 300 to 400.
Although Dempsey said maintaining the status quo is one option, further cuts are consistent with President Barack Obama's 2009 promise to pursue the elimination of nuclear weapons and the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, which called for an "implementation study" by the Defense Department to review the nation's nuclear deterrence requirements with an eye toward further reductions in the size of the arsenal.
Last March, National Security Adviser Tom Donilon said the administration was making preparations for the next round of nuclear reductions.
Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, complained that such a step would encourage other nations to advance their nuclear programs. Fearing Iran's nuclear ambitions, the United States and the international community have imposed tough sanctions on Tehran.
"If they see that we are going to come down from 1,500 to some number in the low to middle hundreds, it does nothing but encourage our enemies and discourage our friends," Thornberry said. "And the result of that is more nuclear weapons programs all across the world, which would seem to me to be something that we would not want to have happen."
Panetta said a number of options are being discussed but provided no specifics. He insisted any decision would be part of a treaty that would have to be ratified by the Senate.
"As you know, reductions that have been made, at least in this administration, have only been made as part of the START process and not outside of that process. And I would expect that that would be the same in the future," Panetta said.
Rep. Michael Turner, R-Ohio, raised serious concerns about cuts of 80 percent. Franks called that "reckless lunacy." In a statement, Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., accused Obama of "catering to his liberal base that believes that if we unilaterally disarm, the rest of the world will follow suit and threats to our national security will just go away."
Rose Gottemoeller, the State Department's top arms control official, told reporters Wednesday that although the administration is not yet ready to begin a new round of nuclear arms reduction negotiations with Russia, officials on both sides already are holding "serious discussions" on issues that should be settled before negotiations begin.
She said such discussions have begun, for example, on reaching a common understanding of which sets of U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons should be included in the "strategic" category and which are "non-strategic." The difference is important because until now, U.S.-Russian nuclear arms negotiations have dealt only with strategic weapons, which traditionally are defined as those capable of reaching either the U.S. or Russian homeland. The Russians argue that U.S. nuclear weapons based in Europe should be included in the "strategic" category; the U.S. disagrees.
Panetta and Dempsey were pressed on the issue during their second day of congressional testimony on Obama's defense budget for 2013. Democrats and Republicans are resisting proposed cuts in the size of the Army and Marine Corps, cutbacks on shipbuilding, delays in the purchase of some fighter jets and weapons systems and another round of domestic base closings.
Overall, the budget for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1 would provide $525.4 billion in base spending and another $88.5 billion for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The total is nearly $32 billion less than this year's budget.
Panetta repeatedly reminded lawmakers that the cuts were dictated by the budget agreement reached by Obama and Congress last summer, a pact supported by the panel's chairman, Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., and many other members of the committee.
"The bottom line here is we were handed a number for defense reductions. We stepped up to the plate, we met our obligations to try to do this in a way that would still preserve for us an effective force to deal with the threats," Panetta said.
Committee Republicans argued that Obama had called for $400 billion in reductions over 10 years last April, months before the deficit-cutting plan.
Looking at future budgets, Rep. Adam Smith of Washington state, the panel's top Democrat, said that in reality the cuts are a reduction in projected spending.
"It's a decrease in the increase," Smith said.