Lawmakers gird for spending battle over nuclear weapons
Nuclear weapons are emerging as one of the top political brawls in the brewing battle over next year’s defense budget.
Democrats have been introducing bills to curtail costly nuclear modernization programs, as well writing letters urging President Biden to support their efforts.
But Republicans are shooting back with their own letters and op-eds calling on Biden to stay the course on programs that largely originated during the Obama administration. They’re also working to pin down Pentagon nominees on where they stand.
The back-and-forth over nuclear modernization is providing a lens into the larger fight that’s taking shape as the Biden administration prepares to present its first defense budget in the spring. Expectations are that the administration will keep funding flat.
In one of the latest salvos, top Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee said Biden should boost defense spending by 3 to 5 percent, in part citing nuclear modernization needs, as well as bolstering cyber and naval capabilities.
“As you prepare your administration’s fiscal year 2022 (FY22) budget for submission to Congress, we urge you to reject demands from many on the left to cut or freeze defense spending at current levels,” ranking member Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) and the top Republicans on each of the panel’s subcommittees wrote in a Thursday letter to Biden.
“The next four years are going to be a crucial period for our military and our nation,” they added. “If we do not make the investments our military needs today, we will not be able to defend our nation or our allies in the future.”
Defense officials early in the Trump administration talked about the need for 3 to 5 percent annual budget growth over inflation in order to properly fund the National Defense Strategy, which calls for reorienting the military toward competition with China and Russia after years of focusing on counterterrorism.
But even the Trump administration had projected a relatively flat defense budget in fiscal year 2022 compared to the $740 billion defense budget in fiscal 2021, amid other pressures such as a growing national debt.
As the Biden administration faces a time crunch in crafting its first budget proposal, Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks in a February memo directed a review of a select group of programs, including low-yield nuclear warheads and nuclear command and control, according to multiple reports.
The Trump administration developed and deployed a submarine-launch low-yield nuclear warhead, dubbed the W76-2 warhead, that Democrats argued raised the risk of nuclear war by potentially lowering the threshold for the U.S. willingness to use nuclear weapons.
Trump officials were also in the early stages of developing a new nuclear-armed sea-launched cruise missile.
On Thursday, Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and Rep. Joe Courtney (D-Conn.) introduced a bill to prohibit production and deployment, as well as research and development, of the nuclear-armed sea-launched cruise missile and its associated warhead.
“Putting new, expensive nuclear warheads on attack submarines and surface ships that haven’t carried those weapons in almost thirty years is a distraction that will suck precious resources away from the most pressing need of the U.S. Navy—namely, to increase the size of its overworked fleet,” Courtney, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee’s seapower subcommittee, said in a statement. “This legislation is a common-sense bill that will stop the hemorrhaging of precious Navy dollars for a wasteful program that Congress barely debated.”
Democrats have also expressed concern about the price tag of nuclear modernization programs that started during the Obama administration, in particular a replacement intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) known as the Ground-based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD). The total cost of the nuclear modernization programs, which also include the new B-21 bomber and new Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine, could reach an estimated $1.7 trillion over 30 years, according to a 2017 Government Accountability Office report.
In a Wednesday letter, Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) pressed Biden to take several steps in his fiscal 2022 budget request and any other policy reviews to “reflect the hard, cold reality that there is no such thing as a winnable nuclear war.”
Among the steps they urged Biden to take was to withdraw the W76-2 from deployment, cancel the new sea-launched cruise missile program and pause funding for the GBSD program to instead extend the life of existing Minuteman III ICBMs.
“The United States can retain a safe, secure, and effective nuclear deterrent which is also affordable and enhances our national security,” Khanna and Markey wrote.
An interim national security strategy released by the White House on Wednesday said the administration would “take steps to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy, while ensuring our strategic deterrent remains safe, secure, and effective and that our extended deterrence commitments to our allies remain strong and credible.”
But Republicans have been pushing back against any potential changes to nuclear programs.
In an op-ed last month for Breaking Defense, Rogers and Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, railed against efforts to “cripple the U.S. nuclear deterrent forever.”
“President Biden must prioritize long-overdue investments in the nuclear triad, or risk permanently losing our most effective means for deterring existential military threats,” they wrote. The triad refers to being able to launch nuclear missiles by land, sea and air.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) responded to their op-ed on Friday by questioning whether spending more than $1 trillion is “really necessary to have a deterrent.”
“We have to have a deterrent so that nobody thinks they can ever launch any nuclear weapon of any size without paying an unacceptable cost,” Smith said at an event hosted by the Brookings Institution. “My big beef is that I don’t think we need 5,000 nuclear weapons to accomplish that.”
More generally, Smith bristled at the focus on increasing the overall defense budget by 3 to 5 percent, saying the topline number is not as important as what it’s spent on.
“Can we all just sort of get off of this epic fight over whether or not it’s 3 percent or 5 percent or 1 percent or it’s cut or whatever, and let’s just spend the goddamn money effectively,” Smith said.
Meanwhile, Republicans on the Senate Armed Services Committee have been pushing to get Biden’s Pentagon nominees on the record supporting nuclear modernization, particularly the GBSD program.
Supporters of the program have been bolstered in their arguments by January comments from Strategic Command chief Adm. Charles Richard that “you cannot life-extend Minuteman III.”
Both Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Hicks said at their confirmation hearings they were generally supportive of nuclear modernization and all three legs of the nuclear triad. But they stopped short of endorsing any specific existing programs, saying they needed to see the latest classified information first.
Colin Kahl, Biden’s nominee to be under secretary of Defense for policy, gave a similar answer at his confirmation hearing Thursday. Republicans, some of whom are opposing him over fiery tweets he wrote criticizing the Trump administration, tore into him for what Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) described as “evasive” answers.
“I will take that unwillingness to give a straight answer as that you probably don’t think that we should continue to fund the Ground-based Strategic Deterrent, as do many other members of your party,” Cotton, who is opposing Kahl over his tweets, said at the hearing.
Committee Chairman Jack Reed (D-R.I.) defended Kahl’s “practical concerns” about needing to see the most recent classified information before taking a position, to which Kahl replied that he thinks “the triad has been a tried and true bedrock of our deterrence for decades” and his “only reason to be cautious was precisely for the reasons that you identified, which is that there is classified material which is relevant to these systems that I am not privy to.”
Reed, for his part, told reporters at a recent roundtable that he supports existing programs to modernize the triad, but that Congress needs to ensure they are being done in the most cost-effective way.
“We have to modernize the triad and maintain, in my view, the triad for strategic reasons that have been successful for about 70 years,” he said. “But in every one of these areas we can’t avoid looking at cost and trying to minimize those costs.”