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Arms Control: It's Back and Hot!

The sleeper issue of 2010, the one issue that almost no one who follows defense these days knows much about, is arms control. And it looks likely, says defense analysts and congressional aides, to be the single hottest defense topic on Capitol Hill this year.

Arms control has been pretty much dead as a doornail for most of the last decade. The Bush administration crushed arms control as an issue. Their space policy even included somewhat unnecessary language that anything to do with arms control would not be permitted to affect US space operations. (The 2006 Space Policy said: "The United States will oppose the development of new legal regimes or other restrictions that seek to prohibit or limit U.S. access to or use of space. Proposed arms control agreements or restrictions must not impair the rights of the United States to conduct research, development, testing, and operations or other activities in space for U.S. national interests…"

Today, the scent of battle is in the air. Arms controls experts on both sides of the aisle flash brighter smiles and deeper scowls these days than they have in years.

For the acquisition community and for those who care about policy, following are the hottest things to watch as this debate unfolds.

A Republican defense analyst carved out the hottest topic on the acquisition side -- missile defense. "Putin's 29 December speech demanding BMD constraints in the START extension treaty has kicked the chess-board over, and has upended the July Obama-Medvedev "Joint Understanding. Obama's "zero nukes" enthusiasm, while killing the platform modernization for the triad (only the SSBN retains a post-Ohio class modernization effort), will make the administration very vulnerable to Hill criticism. The administration will almost certainly have to produce some sort of "safeguards" package for Hill critics if it has any hopes of winning approval for its arms control aspirations," this experienced GOP defense analyst said.

A congressional aide -- one of the few with experience in arms control issues -- admitted that Democrats must do a better job of being prepared for GOP criticism as the State Department finishes its START follow-on treaty, due out sometime this month.

"We need to make sure that we are ready, and we weren't ready last time. We are doing lots of education since half the Senate wasn't even here when we had the vote last time," this aide said. And the START effort must be successful "because it will be a strong indicator of whether we can get CTBT passed."

The people to watch are roughly 20 senators -- most of them Republican -- this aide said "are violently opposed to CTBT. They worry we are going to unilaterally disarm. We are not going to unilaterally disarm. That is outrageous."

The key issue that this group -- led by Sens. Kyle, Sessions and Inhofe -- will focus on is whether the US needs and can field something like the Reliable Replacement Warhead. Many in the GOP believe one is necessary. Democrats generally accept the findings of several studies that the US warhead stockpile is stable and reliable.

David Wright, co-director of the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, believes even discussing RRW is unproductive. "I don't see it as a legitimate argument. As people continue to make the case that we need new warheads it really sends a bizarre signal to the rest of the world. As soon as you step back and look at what message we are trying to send to the world you can see that that's a bad idea," he said.

However, there are key nuclear components that need refurbishing, the congressional aide said. And the administration's February budget will be a key indicator of just how serious the Obama administration is about pursuing arms control solutions.

The focus is on two facilities, the uranium facility at Y-12 National Security Complex at Oak Ridge [pictured above] and one at Los Alamos. They are going to cost a great deal -- roughly $3 billion each. So, if you want to stay ahead of the arms control debate, watch the president’s budget to see if it contains funding to get those started..

"If you don't see good support in the NNSA (National Nuclear Security Administration) budget for those two buildings and for surveillance and for labs to be maintained that's going to be worse than difficult to get something passed," the congressional aide said.

In these times of tight and tighter budgets, finding roughly funds to get started in a new $6 billion project will not be easy.

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