An unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile launches in February during an operational test from a facility on north Vandenberg Air Force Base. Joe Davila/U.S. Air Force
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In mid-February, a group of House Republicans sent a letter to President Barack Obama expressing “deep concern” about possible future cuts to the strategic nuclear arsenal reportedly being considered by the administration. Some of the options — including two that would at least halve the arsenal’s current size — would by many accounts undermine the rationale for spending billions of dollars on new strategic bombers, missiles and submarines over the next decade.

“At a time when every other nuclear weapons state has an active nuclear weapons modernization program and many are growing their stockpiles and capabilities,” read the Republicans’ letter, “it is inconceivable to us that you would lead the United States down such a dangerous plan as has been reported.”

Almost all of the signers were members of the House Armed Services Committee, a group that helps oversee how the nation spends its massive defense budget. Campaign finance records show that over the past three years alone, the signers received $1.12 million from the employees and political action committees of the four large defense contractors that have a major stake in the government’s decisionmaking about those new bombers, missiles, and submarines.

Each of the four contractors builds numerous weapons, and has many reasons to politically support the members of a committee that helps authorizes around $677 billion in military spending annually. But the business of making launchers of various kinds for nuclear warheads is slated to grow dramatically over the next decade, causing industry lobbyists and consultants to pay particular attention to the prospects for a new arms treaty that might bring deep nuclear cuts.

Estimates of the total amount of money needed to keep nuclear weapons-related production lines humming have varied widely and been the subject of a fierce partisan debate. But the lowest estimates are still in the hundreds of billions of dollars. Production of a series of new strategic submarines has been slightly delayed but is expected to cost $65-70 billion, for example. And a new long-range strategic bomber, which the Air Force has decided to build on an accelerated schedule, is slated to cost at least $55 billion. Neither program would be obstructed by the latest nuclear weapons agreement with Russia, called New START, which cuts the number of U.S. strategic warheads from 1790 to 1550 by 2018.

The new, lower options being examined — as part of a revision in nuclear weapons targeting plans ordered by Obama in 2009 — include a potential further reduction by around a third, to around 1000-1100 weapons; a reduction to 700-800 weapons; and a reduction to 300 to 400 weapons. The numbers were first reported by the Associated Press. Under the first option, warheads might have to be removed from missiles on submarines, or missiles removed from silos or subs, according to Hans Kristensen, director of the nuclear information project at the Federation of American Scientists. The second of these options would require giving up some missiles in silos or subs, or bombs on bombers, as well as some of the platforms themselves. The lowest option would almost certainly require giving up a full leg of the so-called “nuclear triad” consisting of air, land, and sea-based weapons — such as all the bombers or the land-based missiles.

Of these three, only the option of a reduction to around 1100 is being seriously considered by senior administration officials, according to a source who is deeply familiar with the highly classified discussion. Even that cut has been strongly opposed by the military officials who oversee the bomber and missile force, the source added. Moreover, the reductions will in any event hinge on getting a new agreement with Russia, which senior U.S. officials have said could take years.

Nonetheless, talk of doing something more than a one-third reduction makes the industry understandably nervous. The four biggest industry players in the nuclear weapons launch business are Boeing and Lockheed Martin, which have each made ballistic missiles and bombers; Northrop Grumman, which makes bombers; and General Dynamics, which makes submarines. Individuals working at those firms combined with their corporate PACs to donate almost $11.3 million in political contributions since the start of 2009. $1.89 million of that — roughly 16 percent — went to members of House Armed Services Committee, according to an iWatch analysis of records from the non-profit

“Military contractors wield enormous power on the Hill, partly because they are traditionally big campaign donors and partly because they are large employers in key districts” says Meredith McGee, policy director with the Campaign Legal Center. “Money follows the money, and wherever the government is in the business of spending huge sums, those industries will pony up”

Spending on nuclear weapons has been relatively steady at around $52-54 billion annually since 2009, excluding classified spending, according to Stephen Schwartz, an expert on nuclear spending and editor of the Nonproliferation Review at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. But “there’s no easy way to determine what spending will be going forward, especially because there has never been an official, comprehensive nuclear weapons budget,” he says.

“The administration has one plan … some Republicans have another, and then there’s the issue of what happens if and when the sequester takes place. It’s an extremely complicated budgetary environment,” Schwartz told iWatch News.

Agreements to reduce deployed nuclear weapons have been pursued by both Republican and Democratic presidents since 1972, but the issue has provoked more partisan divisions in recent years. In late 2010, for example, the Senate passed the New START treaty with Russia over the opposition of the Republican leadership. Thirteen Republicans crossed over to vote with the Democratic majority, producing a lopsided 71-26 victory. But the original START treaty, in contrast, was ratified in October of 1992 by a 93-6 margin. Alluding to the change in tone, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., noted after the more recent vote that “in today’s Washington, in today’s Senate, 70 votes is yesterday’s 95.”

The letter, signed only by House Republicans, was meant in part to remind Obama that in order to win some Republican support for the New START treaty, he pledged to modernize the current nuclear arsenal. “As you know, your pledge for a long-term commitment to the modernization of our nuclear deterrent was key to the agreement,” the letter stated, adding pointedly that the committee still had not approved funding needed to implement the treaty.

Who got the money

The donations made by the four companies were distributed fairly evenly between committee Republicans and Democrats, but skewed slightly more towards the GOP signers on average.

Leading the way was Committee chairman Buck McKeon, R-Calif. The four companies have given him $318,900 over this period, almost double what the runner up, former representative Ike Skelton, D-Mo., — his predecessor as chairman — received. McKeon has long has a reputation as a friend of the defense industry in general — Salon reported in February that the defense industry firms have rushed to support his wife’s California Legislature race this year — and he has a number of key defense plants in his district, including one where work has been conducted on the new strategic bomber.

According to McGehee, of the Campaign Legal Center, “On the Armed Services Committee there is a tacit understanding between members and the military construction sector — ‘you scratch my back (with campaign contributions), I’ll scratch yours (by supporting policies that help your industry). And it’s all cloaked in patriotism and national security to protect it from criticism or harsh scrutiny.”

Spokespeople for House members and companies alike deny there has been any quid pro- quo.

“Funding from special interests does not always mean something unethical is afoot,” said McKeon spokeswoman Alissa McCurley. “Chairman McKeon receives input from senior military leaders as part of routine Congressional oversight. Those views, along with those of Committee professional staff members, are what sets his annual priorities.” She added that “President Obama’s own statement that nuclear weapons will be key to our national defense” make McKeon’s worries about the arsenal’s decay reasonable.

Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo., who chairs the seapower and projection force subcommittee, received $76,000 from the four contractors, the second largest amount amongst the signers. His spokesman Steve Taylor offered similar sentiments. “Congressman Akin’s support of a strong nuclear arsenal is informed solely by his work on armed services and his belief in a strong national defense posture and capability,” he wrote in an email to iWatch. Akin’s district is close to a number of defense contractors, including the headquarters of Boeing’s defense arm.

In response to questions about their political giving, Margaret Mitchell-Jones, a spokeswoman for Northup Grumman, issued a statement via email. “As a leader in global security, Northrop Grumman believes it is important that the company participate in the democratic process at the federal, state and local level. Northrop Grumman fully complies with all regulations regarding disclosure of expenditures in this area.”

Kendell Pease, a spokesman for General Dynamics, told iWatch that the company gives to “those members of the House and Senate that support a strong national security for the country.” He added that the company doesn’t try to donate to members of any party in particular.

Chris Williams, manager of worldwide media relations for Lockheed Martin, said the company — which collects 82 percent of its sales revenue from the government — “supports a wide range of political leaders based on their level of interest and commitment in national security, homeland security, and other issues of importance to the corporation.” He said that given pressures to cut the defense budget, “we believe it is critical to have our voice heard on issues that are important to our future.”

A spokesman for Boeing did not return requests for comment.

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R. Jeffrey Smith worked for 25 years in a series of key reporting and editorial roles at The Washington...