Eight senators in mid-December asked the Defense Department to not fund an environmental assessment related to active Minuteman III ICBM silos until after Congress completes fiscal year 2014 appropriations legislation.

In a letter to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and comptroller Robert Hale, the senators said the Pentagon initially requested funding for an environmental impact study on Minuteman III silos in its FY ’14 budget request. The joint explanatory statement for the compromise FY ’14 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) signed by President Barack Obama in late December said a provision in the NDAA authorizes the use of FY ’14 funds for the purpose of preparing to implement reductions in nuclear forces necessary to meet the levels required by the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), subject to additional limitations.

The Air Force test launches a Minuteman III ICBM. Photo: Air Force.
The Air Force test launches a Minuteman III ICBM. Photo: Air Force.

The provision includes a subsection that limits the amount spent for an environmental assessment for any proposed reduction in ICBM silos to 50 percent, subject to Congress receiving the nuclear force structure plan required by the FY ’12 NDAA, which the joint explanatory statement said is almost two years late.

The senators said in their letter Congress’ final response to the Pentagon budget request will come through the FY ’14 appropriations process. Sens. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), Michael Enzi (R-Wyo.), Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), Jon Tester (D-Mont.), John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), John Hoeven (R-N.D.), Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) and Mary Landrieu (D-La.) all signed the letter.

“Prior to taking any action, the Department should await a formal decision by Congress on fiscal year 2014 funding,” the letter said. “Both the Senate and House versions of the fiscal year 2014 defense appropriations bills unambiguously prohibit the funding of a silo environmental assessment. We, therefore, urge you not to begin such a study before it is clear whether funds will be available to complete it.”

New START, which the State Department said entered into force in 2011, requires Russia and the United States to meet the treaty’s central limits on strategic arms by 2018. The treaty has limits for each country of 700 deployed ICBMs, submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBM) and deployed heavy bombers equipped for nuclear arms, according to the State Department. New START also has aggregate limits of 1,500 nuclear warheads on deployed ICBMs, SLBMs and heavy bombers and 800 deployed and non-deployed ICBM launchers, SLBM launchers and equipped heavy bombers.

Kingston Reif, director of nuclear non-proliferation at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation in Washington, said Thursday in an email it is likely the United States, under New START, will drop from 450 to 400 deployed ICBMs by the end of the decade, though he said the ICBM caucus could resist this. But in the long run, Reif said, the follow-on program for Minuteman III is the last in the triad rebuild queue behind sea- and air-launched nukes in term of how far along the program is–not a good place, he said, given the current budget environment.

“I think the most likely course the Pentagon would choose to sustain the ICBM leg post-2030 is to further extend the life of the existing Minuteman III, delay acquisition of a new ICBM, and ultimately purchase far fewer than 400 new ICBMs,” Reif told Defense Daily. “If the Air Force chases replacing the existing Minuteman III with a new, prodigiously expensive mobile mission concept, as some in the service at least want to study, the Air Force could price itself out of the ICBM business altogether.”

The letter was first reported by the Great Falls (Mont.) Tribune.