WASHINGTON -- North Korea's failed rocket launch and new arms talks with Iran have thrust the issue of nuclear proliferation back into the headlines. But while President Barack Obama faces obstacles around the globe to his vision of "a world without nuclear weapons," pork-barrel politics and campaign cash are slowing disarmament at home.
Far from world capitals where international arms control treaties are negotiated, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators from rural states comprise an influential caucus against reductions in America's nuclear arsenal. Named for the intercontinental ballistic missiles planted in silos that dot their windswept prairies, the ICBM Coalition has written letters and worked behind the scenes to protect military bases and local jobs as diplomats in Washington labor to negotiate reductions in the number of nukes poised for war.
"Everybody wants to bring home the bacon. The difference is this bacon can blow up the world," said Joe Cirincione, author of "Bomb Scare: The History and Future of Nuclear Weapons" and president of the Ploughshares Fund, an arms control advocacy group. "It's an issue that's supposed to be above this kind of politics."
But with annual U.S. spending on nuclear weapons at about $54 billion, it most certainly is not.
Hans Kristensen, director of Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, estimated the U.S. has 1,950 strategic warheads ready for launch on 798 air-, sea- and land-based delivery vehicles. Under the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or New START, with Russia that was ratified by the Senate in December 2010, each country would be limited to 1,550 strategic nuclear warheads and 800 delivery vehicles.
That's a far cry from the 1967 peak of 31,255 nukes. According to the last publicly released Nuclear Posture Review, the U.S. had a stockpile of 5,113 active and inactive nuclear warheads on Sept. 30, 2009 -- 84 percent fewer than at the height of the Cold War.
Land-based ICBMs represent one leg of a nuclear triad that also includes submarines and bombers. Each has its own congressional caucus.
Lawmakers from New England, where the Navy builds and repairs submarines, as well as those from Washington state and Georgia, the home bases for 14 Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines, lobby hard in Washington to maintain and expand the fleet. At the same time, senators and House members from Missouri, North Dakota and Louisiana watch out for the Air Force strategic bombers based in their states.
Because submarines and bombers can carry out non-nuclear missions, the Cold War-era holdover ICBMs based in the sparsely populated central, northern plains, may be the most vulnerable to cuts if Obama makes good on his vow to deeply slash the nuclear arsenal.
The nation's 450 Minuteman III missles are parceled out evenly to three Air Force bases: Minot in North Dakota, Malmstrom in Montana, and F.E. Warren in Wyoming. Democratic Sen. Kent Conrad of North Dakota and Republican Sen. Mike Enzi of Wyoming are founders and co-chairmen of the Senate ICBM Coalition, which also includes Montana Democrats Max Baucus and Jon Tester, Wyoming Republican John Barrasso and North Dakota Republican John Hoeven. Republicans Orrin Hatch and Mike Lee of Utah, where the rockets are tested also are members. Louisiana's two senators, Democrat Mary Landrieu and Republican David Vitter, also work closely with the group, since the Air Force Global Strike Command that oversees the ICBM arsenal and research on missiles is headquartered at Barksdale Air Force Base in Bossier City.
Under New START, the U.S. and Russia have until 2017 to reduce their nuclear arsenals. The Obama administration is weighing various scenarios, from shrinking to as few as 300 deployed warheads to as many as 1,100.
The president, recently overheard telling Russian President Dmitry Medvedev he would have more "space" to discuss missile defense after the election, is unlikely to discuss the size of nucelar forces before November. Especially when his presumptive GOP challenger Mitt Romney is making it a campaign issue by charging that Obama has "cut critical U.S. missile defense programs and continues to underfund them."
As Obama noted in his April 2009 speech in Prague, a nuclear-free world "will not be reached quickly -- perhaps not in my lifetime. It will take patience and persistence." Still, progress has been slower than many envisioned.
Part of that is due to unexpectedly protracted negotiations with Russia over New START. Cirincione also blamed foot-dragging inside the State Department from Bush administration holdovers skeptical about arms reductions.
But politics has played a part as well. Cirincione noted that Russia, which has been retiring its aging nuclear arsenal at a fast clip, was willing to agree to fewer than 1,550 deployed strategic warheads. But at that level, the U.S. may have been forced to close a missile wing in a state where Democrats have much on the line this November. That includes Montana, where freshman Democratic Sen. Jon Tester is battling Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg in a tight race that could tip control of the Senate.
Last month, Tester signed a letter to the Senate Armed Services Committee urging that the Pentagon not go below 420 deployed warheads and it keep all 450 ICBMs "in warm status" for quick reactivation in case of a national security emergency. The appeal was the latest by Tester and fellow Montanan Max Baucus to protect Malmstrom and jobs in Great Falls that date back at least to 2008.
"Democrats like Jon Tester may be concerned about anything that could undermine the argument that being linked with President Obama is good for their local economies," said Jon Wolfsthal, former nuclear security adviser to Vice President Joe Biden who is now deputy director of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute for International Studies. "Some will ask how much will a Montana senator trying to hold on to his seat have a say on this strategic military decision the president has before him?"
Wolfsthal said he doubts Obama will decide the size of America's nuclear arsenal based on politics. But that hasn't kept the issue from entering this year's election debate.
Last month, Rehberg's campaign sent out a mailing that claimed the president intends to eliminate all 150 missiles at Malmstrom -- even though military leaders have said each ICBM base would likely lose just 10. Tester, who like other Democrats voted for New START, accused his opponent of misleading voters to boost his political campaign.
While the economy and health care have dominated the campaign so far, "the Rehberg folks have tried to get some traction," on the nuclear issue, said David Parker, a political scientist at Montana State University.
Republicans traditionally have portrayed the president's party and allies as weak on defense, even when their leaders have slashed arms stockpiles. Both President George H.W. Bush and his son George W. Bush each cut the number of deployed nuclear weapons by half. But when Obama proposed whittling down what's left by single-digits, Republican Rep. Trent Franks of Arizona called it “reckless lunacy.’’
Still, 13 Republican senators joined a unanimous Democratic caucus to ratify New START, most of them after the White House pledged $85 billion over a decade to modernize the remaining nuclear arsenal. Among them were Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker of Tennessee, home to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which conducts nuclear weapons research.
Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl, a leading voice against arms reduction, opposes cutting nuclear warheads on ideological grounds. But pork barrel considerations remain more prevalent on Capitol Hill, said William Hartung, director of the Arms & Security Project at the Center for International Policy. Campaign money also has an impact.
Hartung culled data from the Center for Responsive Politics on the top four ICBM contractors -- Boeing, General Electric, Northrop Grumman and United Technologies -- and their contributions to 10 coalition senators, including Louisiana's. Over the lawmakers' careers, they received $513,500 from the companies.
Landrieu, a member of the appropriations military construction subcommittee, has gotten the most -- $131,600 since she joined the Senate in 1997. But Tester is the biggest recipient so far in the 2012 election cycle, taking in $21,500 from ICBM contractors. Rehberg has gotten $5,000 from the companies this cycle and $42,050 during his six terms in the House.
None of the companies were among the lawmakers' top-20 donors. But "It's more than enough to make sure they get their calls returned," Hartung said. "Combined with the pork barrel issue of the bases, it may give the companies some clout."
Hartung said he expects more money to flow to ICBM caucus members as the debate over whittling all three legs of the nuclear triad heats up over the next few years. The coalition -- with at least one new member with Conrad's retirement and possibly several more -- also is likely to weigh in the next time the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, an Obama priority, comes back for a Senate vote.
"People always treat this as policy or ideology," said Cirincione. "But this is really all about money."