In a media release given Friday afternoon, Department of Defense spokeswoman Cynthia O. Smith confirmed that the department had recently requested the Air Force to begin an environmental assessment, which will collect
information on the effects of eliminating no more than 50 Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile silos from Minot Air Force Base, Malmstrom AFB in Montana, and Francis E. Warren AFB in Wyoming. The three bases each maintain about a third of the country's Minuteman III arsenal of 448.
Smith explained that the decision was made as part of the effort to comply with the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty signed with Russia and ratified by the U.S. Senate in 2010. The agreement sets a deadline of Feb. 2018 for further limiting the two countries' nuclear weapons armaments following the expiration of the landmark START I agreement in 2009.
The Department of Defense statement comes after Senators Heidi Heitkamp and John Hoeven of North Dakota joined their Montana colleagues in submitting a letter to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel on Thursday, expressing their strenuous opposition to any attempt by the Department of Defense to proceed with just such an assessment.
Congressman Kevin Cramer followed suit Friday morning with a letter of his own expressing the same sentiment, adding that such a move could "significantly damage the morale of airmen working on this crucial mission." The Air Force recently has been addressing the problems of low morale perceived among missile wing personnel, haphazard procedural shortcuts and a test-cheating scandal that had led to the suspension of 92
officers by Jan. 30.
The legal bone of contention is Section 8128 of the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2014, which prohibits defense funding from going toward "any environmental impact analysis related to Minuteman III silos that contain a missile," which is a first step toward making silo
reductions. In their letters, the senators and congressman sought an immediate response from the defense secretary, with "an assurance that such an unnecessary and seemingly illegal move will not be carried out."
The legislators had issued their letters after receiving reports that were confirmed Friday the Department of Defense had instructed the Air Force to proceed with the assessments on its ICBM sites, despite the legislative proscription.
"I don't think they can," Hoeven responded in a telephone interview. "We put right in statute that they're not allowed to use funds to go forward. We'll see what their response is. Hopefully, they'll respond 'OK we recognize that it's the law,' and so they stand down. If not, then we would have to take next steps, and we would have to determine what those are, to make sure they follow the law."
The department's decision comes as part of the nuclear force restructuring made necessary by the terms of New START.
Under that treaty's terms, both the United States and Russia have set a deadline of Feb. 5, 2018, by which to reduce their nuclear arsenals to 700 deployed ICBMs, deployed submarine-launched ballistic missiles and deployed heavy bombers equipped for nuclear armaments; 1,550 nuclear warheads on said delivery systems; and a total limit of 800 deployed and non-deployed delivery systems.
Current as of Sept. 2013, figures provided by the State Department confirmed the U.S. has 809 deployed launchers, 1,688 warheads, and a total of 1,015 deployed and non-deployed delivery systems. This includes the 448 deployed Minuteman III missiles, of which the 91st Missile Wing based at Minot AFB has 150. The next update to the data is scheduled for release in March. The 5th Bomb Wing also stationed there has 26 B-52H Stratofortress bombers, which under the terms of the treaty are individually counted as delivery systems.
To be in compliance with New START, the United States will need a further reduction of 109 deployed launchers, 138 warheads, and 215 deployed and non-deployed launchers. However, the treaty gives both signatories flexibility in deciding how to structure their nuclear forces, and where those reductions are ultimately made.
"The U.S. has a ways to go," said Tom Collina, research director of the Washington-based Arms Control Association, a nonpartisan group dedicated to furthering public understanding of and support for effective arms control policies. With only four years left to act, the military will have to make some timely decisions in order to make those reductions on time.
"It's really up to the Pentagon how to decide," Collina figured, with reductions that will have to be made across the board. "Part of that is to look at the ICBM fields," Collina continued. "What we don't want are services or different sectors playing favorites."
New START was ratified Dec. 22, 2010, with support from senators of both parties. Heitkamp and Hoeven both have taken office since then, and have worked in opposition to the treaty's terms as compromising the country's nuclear defenses.
"I'm opposed to it," Hoeven said of the treaty. "I signed a letter along with other incoming senators expressing opposition to the New START treaty. So I was opposed to it, I would have voted against it."
As a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, he had helped author the provision in the recently adopted Consolidated Appropriations Act blocking the Department of Defense from conducting its impact study.
Collina considered it unfortunate that legislators would try to hinder New START, and warned that a failure on America's part to meet its treaty obligations could have significant diplomatic repercussions.
"Russia's already there," Collina explained, having already reduced its armaments below the treaty's requirements with the expectation that America likewise will do so.
"I don't think that's the issue," Hoeven said on the subject. "It's not an issue of not living up to the terms of the treaty, it's about how you structure your forces." The senator believes the ICBM armament ought to be retained as a deployed asset, but that cuts elsewhere would be sufficient to comply with New START.
"We can still meet the requirements," said Hoeven, though adding "I don't think we should make those reductions."
A response by Hagel to the senators' letter is yet to be seen.
The 91st Missile Wing stationed at Minot AFB represents one half of its dual mission, along with the 5th Bomb Wing. On the base's website, the missile wing is said to employ "approximately 1,500 professionals." Since 2008, the annual economic impact of the base on its surrounding communities has risen by 52.5 percent to $583.9 million in 2013.