House panel approves limits on complying with arms pact with Russia

The House Armed Services Committee approved an amendment Wednesday that could limit presidential authority to comply with a new arms treaty with Russia by reducing the number of strategic nuclear weapons.

The panel’s action came as it spent the day marking up the $553 billion Defense Authorization Bill, which covers spending on military programs for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.

The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which took effect in February, requires the United States and Russia to cut the number of strategic warheads from 2,200 to 1,550 and to limit to 700 the number of deployed strategic delivery systems, such as intercontinental ballistic missiles and strategic bombers.

Under the amendment, passed by voice vote, none of those reductions could be made through 2017 without a certification to Congress from the secretaries of the Defense and Energy departments that costly modernization plans for the U.S. nuclear weapons complex were being carried out. The Obama administration agreed to those plans last year.

A second element in the amendment would prohibit any reductions outside the treaty — whether unilateral or agreed-upon — in the roughly 3,000 non-deployed strategic warheads before the energy secretary certifies two new weapons-production facilities as operational. Both are still in the planning stages at national laboratories in Los Alamos, N.M., and Oak Ridge, Tenn.

Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.), who sponsored the amendment, told his colleagues that the goals are to ensure that promises made to the Senate to get ratification are carried out and to put a brake on any effort to cut nuclear weapons that would not give Congress a role.

Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Wash.), who led opposition to the measure, said the amendment is an attempt to rewrite the treaty or at least tie the hands of President Obama or future presidents in managing the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

The committee also voted 54 to 5 to allow General Electric to use unique Pentagon-owned test facilities and equipment in its self-financed effort to keep alive its second engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Although the House recently voted to support Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates’s plan to discontinue the second engine, the panel was told that this approach would cost taxpayers nothing because GE would have to pay for its use of the government-owned facility.

Another section of the bill would reopen the competition if the Pentagon found that the winning Pratt & Whitney engine did not have enough power to handle any increased weight needed for the controversial new fighter.

In a related matter, the leaders of the Senate Armed Services Committee said Wednesday that Defense Department plans for a major reorganization of U.S. forces in Asia are too costly and need to be reconsidered.

Sens. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) asked the Pentagon to rethink its plans for basing forces in South Korea, Guam and the southern Japanese island of Okinawa.

The plans were designed to move thousands of Marines off Okinawa, where many locals oppose the U.S. troop presence. Sen. James Webb (D-Va.), who served as a Marine in the Vietnam War, joined Levin and McCain in calling for a change.

One way to reduce costs would be to base both Marine and Air Force units at Kadena Air Base, a major U.S. Air Force hub in Japan — a move that some of the services have resisted. The senators said that the current basing plan would impose too much cost on Japan as it recovers from a devastating earthquake and tsunami.

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