Senators get classified briefing on America’s nuclear arsenal

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The Senate Armed Services Committee received a classified briefing Tuesday on the Pentagon’s soon-to-be-released Nuclear Posture Review.

Senators emerging from the briefing were tight-lipped about the contents but spoke generally about the need to modernize the U.S. nuclear arsenal to deter competitors such as Russia and China.

“Our posture has to always reflect not just the capability of our force, but the developing capability of what other countries are doing in terms of their strategies,” Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) said. “The Russians are, in some ways, they’re modifying their strategies in ways, and we’ve got to take that seriously.”

The Pentagon is expected to release the results next month of the months-long review of the nuclear arsenal.

Earlier this month, a leaked, “pre-decisional” draft of the document was obtained and published by the Huffington Post.

The draft calls for the development of “low-yield” nuclear weapons in order to deter Russia and China.

“While the United States has continued to reduce the number and salience of nuclear weapons, others, including Russia and China, have moved in the opposite direction,” the draft says.

Arms control advocates have expressed alarm at the plan, saying it could lower the threshold for when the United States is willing to use nuclear weapons. They have also argued the price tag is cost-prohibitive.

The Congressional Budget Office has estimated nuclear modernization and sustainment could cost $1.2 trillion over the next 30 years. The estimate was based off Obama administration plans.

But senators in both parties on Tuesday expressed support for nuclear modernization.

“We have to obviously keep it modernized, and the triad’s important,” Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) said, referring to the delivery of nuclear weapons by land, sea or air.

Asked whether the United States can afford modernization, McCaskill replied: “Can we afford not to?”

Sullivan said he expects some sticker shock in Congress at the price of modernization but that he thinks there’s “pretty strong” bipartisan support for it.

“The modernization program, at first blush, looks like a pretty hefty price tag,” he said. “But as an overall percentage of the [Department of Defense] budget, it’s not going to swallow it. But I think that’s going to be part of the parameters of the debate. But nobody, as far as I can tell — and I’m very active in this area in terms of Armed Services — nobody as far as I can tell has come out and said you don’t need to modernize our forces.”

He also described the modernization plans as a “seamless transition” from the Obama administration.

“The last two years of the Obama administration, Secretary [of Defense Ash] Carter was very focused on that,” Sullivan said. “I think you’re seeing a pretty seamless transition between Secretary Carter and Secretary [of Defense James] Mattis on the importance of that.”

Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) said modernization needs to be done and that there’s a “good plan in place” for it.

Asked about the cost, Rounds said, “If we don’t have nuclear superiority, nothing else really matters.”

Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), the second highest Republican on the committee, said he was looking for the Nuclear Posture Review to address Russia and China and that cost should not be a concern to respond to nuclear threats from other countries.

“It’s well known that we have not been as active as Russia, as China has in the past,” he said. “When you’re sitting there and you’re watching a missile coming and you have a minute and a half to respond to it or it’s going to take out an American city, you don’t worry about the cost of that.”

Tags Claire McCaskill Dan Sullivan James Inhofe Mike Rounds

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