Top admiral: ‘No condition’ where US should conduct nuclear test ‘at this time’
The top military officer in charge of the U.S. nuclear arsenal said Thursday there is “no condition” right now where he would recommend conducting an explosive nuclear test, though that could change in the future.
“At this time, there is no condition — nothing has changed, right — there is no condition where I would recommend the need for nuclear testing,” Adm. Charles Richard, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee at a hearing.
“But I would say though that it is important for the nation to maintain an ability to do a nuclear test should an issue arise in the future, and I’ve been formally documented in making that recommendation,” he added.
Richard’s comments come as lawmakers are preparing to reconcile competing versions of the annual defense policy bill that take opposite approaches to nuclear testing.
The Senate’s version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) includes $10 million to “carry out projects related to reducing the time required to execute a nuclear test if necessary.”
The House’s NDAA, however, would prohibit funding from being used “to conduct or make preparations for any explosive nuclear weapons test that produces any yield.”
A conference committee to reconcile the two bills has not been formally convened, but staffers on the House and Senate Armed Services committees have been conducting informal negotiations since the chambers passed their bills in July.
The idea of the United States conducting its first explosive nuclear test in decades became a flashpoint after reports that the Trump administration raised the possibility of performing a test as a negotiating tactic in arms talks.
The administration is seeking a new arms control agreement with Russia and China to replace an expiring arms treaty between Washington and Moscow known as New START. Beijing has repeatedly rejected joining the talks.
Opponents of the House language argue it is too restrictive, preventing any tests that might be necessary in an emergency and thereby emboldening U.S. enemies.
But opponents of resuming nuclear testing argue doing so would trigger an arms race and be detrimental to human health and the environment while providing no practical benefit because the safety and reliability of the U.S. nuclear arsenal is checked with other technology.
Meanwhile, Republicans on the Senate Armed Services Committee also fumed at Thursday’s hearing about several other proposed changes to budgeting for the Nuclear Weapons Council (NWC) and National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) in the House NDAA, as well as in the House version of the annual Energy Department spending bill.
Among the changes at issue, the House-passed Energy Department spending bill would block funding for the NWC “to guide, advise, assist, develop or execute a budget for the National Nuclear Security Administration.”
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.), who has advocated for increasing the role of the Pentagon-led NWC in developing the NNSA’s budget, railed against the proposed changes, accusing the Energy Department of conspiring with House Democrats to “undermine” the NNSA’s relationship with the Defense Department.
“Recently, I’ve learned that individuals from the Department of Energy have worked behind the scenes with House Democrats on ill-advised legislation that would: bury the Nuclear Weapons Council in unneeded bureaucracy and bring its decision-making process to a grinding halt; prohibit all cooperation between NNSA and the NWC for maintaining the safety and security of our nuclear weapons; destroy the NNSA’s congressionally-mandated independence and drag us back to the dysfunction of the Clinton years; and do lasting and possibly irreversible harm to the President’s efforts to preserve and improve our deterrent — an effort even former President Obama understood was necessary,” Inhofe said.
Inhofe also released a letter from Defense Secretary Mark Esper that warned proposals in the House NDAA and Energy Department bill would “put modernization of the United States’ nuclear deterrent at unacceptable risk.”