Overnight Defense: Officials approved sending Saudis nuclear technology after Khashoggi killing | Space Command pick warns of challenges ahead | Lawmakers clash over bill blocking low-yield nukes

Overnight Defense: Officials approved sending Saudis nuclear technology after Khashoggi killing | Space Command pick warns of challenges ahead | Lawmakers clash over bill blocking low-yield nukes
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Happy Tuesday and welcome to Overnight Defense. I'm Ellen Mitchell, and here's your nightly guide to the latest developments at the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill and beyond. CLICK HERE to subscribe to the newsletter.

 

THE TOPLINE: The Trump administration approved sending unclassified nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia twice after the death of U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a Democratic senator said Tuesday.

One of the approvals came on Oct. 18, 16 days after Khashoggi was killed, Sen. Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael KaineWarren's pledge to avoid first nuclear strike sparks intense pushback Almost three-quarters say minimum age to buy tobacco should be 21: Gallup Overnight Defense: Dems talk Afghanistan, nukes at Detroit debate | Senate panel advances Hyten nomination | Iranian foreign minister hit with sanctions | Senate confirms UN ambassador MORE (D-Va.) said in a statement after seeing the approvals. The second came Feb. 18, he said.

"It has taken the Trump administration more than two months to answer a simple question -- when did you approve transfers of nuclear expertise from American companies to Saudi Arabia? And the answer is shocking," said Kaine, the 2016 Democratic vice-presidential nominee.

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"The alarming realization that the Trump administration signed off on sharing our nuclear know-how with the Saudi regime after it brutally murdered an American resident adds to a disturbing pattern of behavior that includes citing a bogus emergency to bypass a congressional block on arms sales to the Saudis, continuing support for the disastrous war in Yemen over congressional objections, turning a blind eye to the regime's detention of women's rights activists, and refusing to comply with the Global Magnitsky Act to reach a determination about the Saudi government's responsibility for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi," he added.

What officials approved: At issue is what's known as Part 810 authorizations, which allow U.S. companies to share certain unclassified nuclear energy technology and services with other countries.

The Trump administration's approval of seven Part 810 authorizations for Saudi Arabia was first reported in late March. Energy Secretary Rick PerryJames (Rick) Richard PerryThe credible case for Texas and its clean energy solutions Oversight: Trump confidant Tom Barrack pushed for Saudi nuclear plant construction Amazon taps Trump ally to lobby amid Pentagon cloud-computing contract fight MORE later confirmed to the Senate Armed Services Committee that he approved the authorizations.

An Energy Department spokeswoman did not immediately respond a request for comment Tuesday on Kaine's statement.

Perry previously defended the authorizations as "something that goes on every day," with the Energy Department stressing in a March statement that a Part 810 authorization "does not authorize the transfer of nuclear material, equipment or components."

Why lawmakers are mad: Lawmakers, particularly Democrats, were furious the administration approved the authorizations, accusing it of circumventing Congress while it negotiates a broader nuclear agreement with Saudi Arabia.

That agreement, known as a 123 agreement, has elicited bipartisan opposition because Riyadh is resisting a deal that prohibits enriching uranium and reprocessing spent fuel to produce plutonium, which are essential steps in producing nuclear weapons.

Some lawmakers also zeroed on opposing a potential 123 agreement with Saudi Arabia as part of their fury after Khashoggi was killed in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October.

Congress has statutory authority to review and potentially block 123 agreements.

How Trump got around Congress: Last month, the Trump administration also invoked emergency powers in order to sell arms to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates without a 30-day congressional review period. Lawmakers had warned the administration did not have the votes to get the sales to the Saudis through Congress after Khashoggi's death.

"President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump watching 'very closely' as Portland braces for dueling protests WaPo calls Trump admin 'another threat' to endangered species Are Democrats turning Trump-like? MORE's eagerness to give the Saudis anything they want, over bipartisan congressional objection, harms American national security interests," Kaine said, "and is one of many steps the administration is taking that is fueling a dangerous escalation of tension in the region."

 

SPACE COMMAND NOMINEE WARNS OF "SUBSTANTIAL" CHALLENGES: The Trump administration's nominee to lead its new U.S. Space Command (SPACECOM) warned lawmakers on Tuesday there would be "substantial" challenges in standing up such an arm of the military. 

Air Force Gen. John Raymond, who currently serves as head of Air Force Space Command at Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado, made his way easily through the confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee. Raymond faced little pushback or calls to explain the details of how the Pentagon plans to stand up the new combatant command. The task is expected to cost millions and require hundreds of personnel to transfer from other areas of the military.

"If confirmed, my first priority will be to ensure the seamless transition of the command and control of critical space capabilities that the nation and the joint force depend on each-and-every day," he wrote in response to questions from lawmakers, released during the hearing.

"Simultaneously we need to ensure we take steps to strengthen readiness and lethality as we complete our shift from a permissive environment to a posture for warfighting."

What it will take: The Air Force's fiscal year 2020 budget request, for example, asks for nearly $84 million to start SPACECOM. 

Raymond also said in his written responses that a group of about 642 personnel from U.S. Strategic Command will be needed to initially stand up SPACECOM.

Looming threats from Russia and China: The four-star general was asked about growing threats posed by Russia and China. He warned the two nations were developing new weapons capable of interfering with or destroying U.S. space-based systems.

"Russia is making considerable gains, and our operational advantage is shrinking," Raymond said. "Russia is developing a full range of counterspace capabilities to include electronic warfare, directed energy, cyber threats, sophisticated on-orbit threats, and direct ascent missiles."

A refresher: Trump in March nominated Raymond to lead the new combatant command, part of its broader efforts to increase the military's focus on space. The administration also hopes to establish the Space Force as the sixth branch of the military and Raymond's confirmation would jump-start the process.

"Establishing [Space Command] is a critical step that underscores the importance of the space domain and its strategic contributions to U.S. national security," the Pentagon said in an announcement at the time. "The [Space Command] establishment will accelerate our space capabilities to address the rapidly evolving threats to U.S. space systems, and the importance of deterring potential adversaries from putting critical U.S. space systems at risk."

If confirmed by the full Senate, Raymond would take on the new combatant command in addition to his duties as head of Air Force Space Command.

 

HOUSE MEMBERS BUTT HEADS OVER BILL BLOCKING LOW-YIELD NUKES: A House subcommittee has advanced its portion of the annual defense policy bill, blocking the Pentagon from deploying low-yield nuclear warheads following a partisan debate.

The strategic forces subcommittee voted Wednesday in an 10-8 party-line vote to approve its section of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), including four provisions that Republican members objected to.

A Republican amendment to nix the provisions, offered by Rep. Liz CheneyElizabeth (Liz) Lynn CheneyGOP memo deflects some gun questions to 'violence from the left' The Hill's Campaign Report: Battle for Senate begins to take shape Republicans offer support for Steve King challenger MORE (R-Wyo.), failed 8-10.

What this means: The fight in the subcommittee could signal a more contentious and lengthy debate when the full committee takes up the bill next week.

On Wednesday, Republicans argued Democrats were departing from longstanding practice to keep the subcommittee's portion of the bill strictly bipartisan and wait until the full committee to address controversial issues.

Rep. Mike TurnerMichael Ray TurnerDayton Democrat launches challenge to longtime GOP rep Assault weapons ban picks up steam in Congress Ohio GOP rep announces support of military-style weapon ban MORE (R-Ohio), the subpanel's top Republican, said that his fellow GOP members were "deeply disappointed" in the markup, saying it makes Americans "less safe."

"This is not an issue of our having differing legislative priorities," he said. "This is that many of the provisions that are in this mark, we don't believe are appropriate for legislation."

The background: The Trump administration proposed the submarine-launched low-yield warhead, known as the W76-2, as part of its Nuclear Posture Review. The administration argues it is needed to deter Russia, but opponents argue it is destabilizing and could lower the threshold for the country's willingness to use nuclear weapons.

The National Nuclear Security Administration is expected to finish production of the warheads this year, but the Pentagon still needs money to deploy them.

The NDAA would block funding for the Pentagon to deploy the warheads. Full committee 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 said he wants to "kill" the low-yield warhead.

Other provisions: The subcommittee's portion of the NDAA also includes a provision 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, claiming that Moscow is denying U.S. requests to fly over some parts of the country. NDAAs passed under a GOP-controlled Congress have restricted treaty-related funding.

Republicans also objected to provisions in the bill on plutonium pit production capacity and notifications of meetings held by the Nuclear Weapons Council.

The Dem side: Chairman Jim CooperJames (Jim) Hayes Shofner CooperLive coverage: House Oversight examines Trump family separation policy House panel OKs space military branch Overnight Defense: Officials approved sending Saudis nuclear technology after Khashoggi killing | Space Command pick warns of challenges ahead | Lawmakers clash over bill blocking low-yield nukes MORE (D-Tenn.) defended his decision to include the provisions, saying the panel has the best expertise to tackle nuclear debates.

"Regarding low-yield, the last sixty years of nuclear deterrence strategy was based, in part, on the U.S. strategic nuclear submarine force, the most survivable leg of the triad, never being used as a tactical nuclear platform," Cooper said. "I hope that members realize that adding a small number of low-yield weapons to our submarines will actually decrease, not increase, our strategic power by subtracting priceless missile tubes and by risking exposure of our submarines to attack."

Cooper added that he is not opposed to low-yield weapons in general, highlighting that air assets already have them.

 

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