Lawmakers urge Biden to make ‘bold decisions’ in nuclear review
A group of Democratic lawmakers is urging President Biden to be actively involved in his administration’s review of the nation’s nuclear policy and make “bold decisions” that would reduce the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. national security strategy.
“Mr. President, as a United States senator and then as vice president, you were a party to every major nuclear weapons debate of the past five-decades. From bolstering the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, to building European support for the Intermediate-Nuclear Forces Treaty, to securing votes for ratification of the New START Treaty, you have consistently been on the right side of history,” the 21 senators and House members wrote in a letter to Biden obtained by The Hill.
“Your administration’s [Nuclear Posture Review] is a watershed moment where you can reject a 21st century arms race and make bold decisions to lead us towards a future where nuclear weapons no longer threaten all humanity,” they added, using the formal name for the review.
The letter was organized Sens. Ed Markey (D-Mass) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Reps. Don Beyer (D-Va.) and John Garamendi (D-Calif.). The four lawmakers are the co-chairs of the congressional nuclear weapons and arms control working group.
The letter comes as the Biden administration is poised to kick off its Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) this month. The review, which is expected to conclude in early 2022, will update the Trump administration’s 2018 nuclear blueprint. It has been seen as an opportunity by arms control advocates to curtail some of former President Trump’s more controversial proposals.
The Trump-era review in some ways followed one put forward by the Obama administration in 2010, such as endorsing the modernization of the triad — the ability to launch nuclear weapons by land, sea or air. But it deviated in other ways, such as calling for new weapons like the low-yield submarine-launched warhead that has since been deployed and raising the possibility of using nuclear weapons to respond to non-nuclear attacks.
In their letter to Biden, the lawmakers called on the president to eliminate the W76-2 low-yield warhead that was deployed by the Trump administration, as well as a nuclear-armed sea-launched cruise missile that is in early stages of development.
Both weapons, the lawmakers argued, “are more likely to exacerbate competition with Russia and China and invite miscalculation in a crisis than meet our deterrence and alliance commitments.”
Some lawmakers, including several who signed the letter, have also previously called for the United States to adopt a “no first use” policy that would explicitly state the United States would not be the first country to use a nuclear weapon in a military conflict.
Biden himself said when he was vice president in 2017 that he finds it “hard to envision a plausible scenario in which the first use of nuclear weapons by the United States would be necessary or make sense.”
In their letter, the lawmakers urged Biden to use the review to declare a policy that would “assign a reduced role for U.S. nuclear weapons,” consistent with his 2017 comments.
“We likewise conceive of no situation where the U.S. introduction of nuclear weapons to an armed conflict in response to a non-nuclear weapons attack would be consistent with the principles of necessity, discrimination, and proportionality,” they wrote. “We hope that the NPR operationalizes your previously stated view that the United States will not need to fire the first shot in a nuclear conflict and that it configures its nuclear forces away from that warfighting posture accordingly.”
The letter also targets the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) replacement program known as the Ground-based Strategic Deterrent. This program, which began during the Obama administration, has long been in the crosshairs of nuclear opponents who argue it would be more cost effective to extend the life of the existing Minuteman III ICBMs or that the land component of the nuclear triad should be eliminated altogether.
The lawmakers specifically called for an “independent, outside organization” to conduct a “thorough review of the technical feasibility” of extending the life of the Minuteman IIIs.
“We are confident that this review will conclude that steps such as a modest reduction in the deployed number of ICBMs and/or reducing the number of annual flight tests can safely extend the lifespan of Minuteman III until at least 2050, not to mention realize savings of tens of billions of taxpayer dollars through the late 2030s,” they wrote.
More generally, the lawmakers urged Biden to use his Nuclear Posture Review to examine the “number and types of new weapons needed to deter nuclear attack.”
The letter cited a recent estimate from the Congressional Budget Office that updating and maintaining the U.S. nuclear arsenal over the next 10 years could cost $634 billion.
A reduction in the size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, the lawmakers wrote, “could reduce the mounting bill to U.S. taxpayers and restore U.S. global leadership on arms control, while meeting our national security and allied security commitments.”
The lawmakers also called for a review of what the climatic, environmental and humanitarian costs of a U.S. nuclear strike would be, as well as to commit to “pursuing robust diplomacy with Russia and China on arms control.”
“We respectfully ask that you directly guide the NPR process to reduce the role of U.S. nuclear weapons in our national security strategy, forego development of new nuclear weapons, and develop a saner declaratory policy on nuclear weapons use,” they wrote.