House defense bill sets stage for contentious nuclear debate

House defense bill sets stage for contentious nuclear debate

The House version of the annual defense policy would require an independent study on the United States adopting a “no first use” policy on nuclear weapons.

Nuclear issues are shaping up to be among the most contentious issues as Congress debates this year’s National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), with Republicans already coming out strongly against what’s in the bill.

The bill, a summary of which was released Monday morning, does not go as far as Chairman Adam SmithDavid (Adam) Adam SmithWarren's pledge to avoid first nuclear strike sparks intense pushback Landmark US-Russia arms control treaty poised for final blow Young Democrats look to replicate Ocasio-Cortez's primary path MORE (D-Wash.) has opined about in the past. But it does seek to “start that debate” about the appropriate size and cost of the nuclear arsenal, staffers told reporters ahead of the bill's release.

ADVERTISEMENT

“The chairman feels strongly that the nuclear arsenal is too large, that we spend too much money on legacy weapons systems when we have emerging requirements like cyber, like [artificial intelligence], like space, which aren’t getting the kind of focus that’s required, and he wants to reevaluate where we’re spending money, if we’re going to have another money to spend on these emerging things that are coming out,” a staffer said.

Smith, who has long lambasted the price tag for nuclear modernization, pledged to make the issue a priority when he took control of the gavel after Democrats won back the House.

In hearings and speeches, he has questioned the need for the nuclear triad, said he wants to “kill” the low-yield warhead and blasted Trump for casting aside nuclear treaties.

In late January, Smith also reintroduced his No First Use Act that would make it U.S. policy not to use nuclear weapons first. Right now, U.S. policy leaves open the possibility of being the first to use a nuclear weapon in a conflict.

Rather than incorporating that bill, the NDAA requires the independent study on the implications of adopting such a policy.

Staffers also stressed the bill would not eliminate a leg of the triad, which refers to the three methods of delivering nuclear warheads. 

“That didn’t happen, it wasn’t contemplated, it wasn’t where [Smith] wanted to go,” the staffer said. The NDAA has “been portrayed as some kind of attack on the nuclear enterprise, that is not what this is, and that’s a bit over the top.”

The bill does cut $103 million from the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD), the in-development intercontinental ballistic missile meant to replace the Minuteman III. It also requires a report on options to extend the life of the Minuteman III to 2050.

On Monday afternoon, a senior Republican committee aide highlighted the cut to the GBSD as an area where GOP members are "deeply concerned." The aide also highlighted a $708 million cut to National Nuclear Security Administration accounts associated with "a safe, secure and reliable triad," including life extension, stockpiles and strategic materials.

As revealed in the strategic forces subcommittee’s portions of the bill, the NDAA would also block the deployment of the new submarine-launched, low-yield nuclear warhead.

Every Republican on the subcommittee voted against the bill last week over the low-yield warhead provision and three other issues.

Signaling a continued fierce debate on the issue, Rep. Michael Turner (Ohio), the top Republican on the strategic forces subcommittee, wrote a Wall Street Journal op-ed Friday blasting the idea of blocking its deployment.

“The only reasoning for it is blind opposition to nuclear weapons,” he wrote. “We must operate in the world we live in, not the one we wish for. America’s adversaries possess this low-yield nuclear weapon capability and seem prepared to use them. Recalling our own weapons would be a grave mistake.”

Republicans are also opposed to the provision included in the strategic forces subcommittee that would prevent the Trump administration from withdrawing from the Open Skies Treaty. The multilateral accord allows signatories to conduct unarmed observation flights over the entirety of other countries in hopes of increasing transparency and reducing the risk of miscalculation.

Republicans have targeted the treaty over alleged Russian violations, including claims that Moscow is denying U.S. requests to fly over some parts of the country.

The Trump administration is in the process of withdrawing from a separate arms control treaty with Russia known as the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. Arms control advocates also fear the administration will scrap another nuclear treaty with Russia known as New START.

To address both of the INF and New START treaties, the NDAA would fence 20 percent of funding from the Defense secretary’s travel budget until the Pentagon responds to a letter Smith and Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot EngelEliot Lance EngelTrump moves forward with billion F-16 sale to Taiwan Pelosi warns Mnuchin to stop 'illegal' .3B cut to foreign aid Democrats slam alleged politicization of Trump State Department after IG report MORE (D-N.Y.) sent in October.

The letter asked several questions on the effects of withdrawing from the treaties, including on long-term U.S.-Russia strategic stability. 

The bill also seeks to reduce the risk of miscalculation leading to nuclear war by mandating the Pentagon establish senior working groups to talk to China, Russia and, if appropriate, North Korea on ideas to reduce that risk.

Updated at 2:18 p.m.