Nuclear weapons are about to explode as an issue on Capitol Hill, because partisan warfare is threatening to consume debates over nuclear procurement and policy in 2019.
Two events are converging that will blow up an already tenuous give-and-take deal between Republicans and Democrats. The first is the Trump administration’s threat to leave the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty early next year if Russia doesn’t come into compliance. The second is the Democratic takeover of the House of Representatives next month.
There has been a “fragile bipartisan consensus” on nuclear weapons, according to Frank Rose, a senior fellow for security and strategy at the Brookings Institution.
During the Obama administration, a deal was brokered under which Republicans supported the New START treaty to reduce nuclear weapons while Democrats backed the modernization of the U.S.’ nuclear arsenal, he said.
All-out partisan warfare on the issue would come at a bad time for the Pentagon. In 2017, the Congressional Budget Office put the price tag of sustaining and modernizing the full nuclear triad of land-, air- and sea-based weapons at $1.2 trillion in constant dollars through 2046.
But, like other things that happened under Obama, the Republican-Democratic deal on nuclear weapons is starting to unravel under Trump.
Nuclear Weapons Treaties
In early December, the Trump administration gave Russia 60 days to come into compliance with the INF treaty or the U.S. will leave.
Trump’s threat raises questions about whether he will renew the New START treaty, which expires in 2021.
Without the arms-control treaties, Democrats could block the funding of nuclear weapons in the 2020 budget with their new majority in the House.
“They can’t build a consensus to do something new or different — the Senate or president might not go along — but they can stop things from happening,” Tom Collina, director of policy at the Ploughshares Fund, which is focused on reducing nuclear weapons. “The power of ‘no’ is a significant force.”
Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., is expected to be the new chair of the House Armed Services Committee and he has been vocal about stopping runaway defense spending.
But while controversial, over-budget programs like Lockheed Martin‘s (LMT) F-35 still grab headlines, the new stealth fighter must replace an aging fighter fleet, and hundreds have already been produced.
By contrast, efforts to modernize U.S. nuclear weapons are still at a relatively early stage. And Democrats have always been more skeptical of nuclear programs, said Mark Cancian, a senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Nuclear Weapons That May Go Boom Or Bust
To modernize the air-based leg of the nuclear weapons triad, the Air Force awarded the B-21 contract to Northrop Grumman (NOC) in 2015 to replace Cold War-era Boeing (BA) B-52s. The eventual procurement price tag is estimated at $80 billion.
The Air Force awarded the B-21 contract to Northrop Grumman in 2015 to replace Cold War-era B-52s.
Cancian believes that this new stealth bomber will survive upcoming procurement battles because of its ability to deliver conventional munitions as well.
New Columbia-class ballistic missile submarines will modernize the sea-based leg of the nuclear triad and replace Ohio-class “boomers.” General Dynamics‘ (GD) Electric Boat is building them with total acquisition costs expected to hit $128 billion.
Cancian also believes that the Columbia-class submarine program will continue, saying ballistic subs are most likely to survive a nuclear attack because they are hidden underwater.
Then there are two missile programs without contract awards yet that have been more controversial. Lockheed and Raytheon (RTN) are competing for the Long-Range Standoff weapon (LRSO), a nuclear cruise missile to be launched from strategic bombers.
Northrop and Boeing are competing to build the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) program to replace Boeing’s aging land-based Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile system.
Former Defense Secretary William Perry and retired Gen. James Cartwright, former vice chair of the Joint Chiefs, argued last year that ICBMs and nuclear cruise missiles carry greater risks of accidentally setting off a nuclear war because they can’t be recalled once launched.
General Dynamics is building Columbia-class subs with total acquisition costs expected to hit $128 billion.
Canceling them would also save billions of dollars that could be used for other pressing national security needs, they said. Meanwhile, nuclear subs and bombers would provide sufficient deterrence and aren’t vulnerable to a surprise attack, allowing them to wait out an alarm that may end up being false.
But Defense Secretary James Mattis has backed the development of new ICBMs and the need for a complete triad as near-peer competition against China and Russia heats up.
Meanwhile, a Congressional Budget Office report on how to reduce the deficit found that canceling the LRSO program and the nuclear warheads associated with it would save $13 billion over the next 10 years, with savings to continue after 2028.
Collina at the Ploughshares Fund said that Rep. Smith could go after the estimated $85 billion-$100 billion GBSD program or $20 billion LRSO, to “make a case that he’s actually saving money.”
High Anxiety Over Low-Yield Nuclear Weapons
The U.S. already has about 500 low-yield airdropped nuclear weapons in its arsenal. And Smith is extremely critical of the low-yield warheads for Lockheed’s Trident D5 submarine-launched ballistic missile.
“It makes no sense for us to build low-yield nuclear weapons,” Smith said at a Ploughshares conference in November. “It brings us no advantage and it is dangerously escalating. It just begins a new nuclear arms race with people just building nuclear weapons all across the board in a way that I think places us at greater danger.”
Because they are less destructive than other nuclear weapons, low-yield warheads could be seen as less risky to use, thereby lowering the threshold for nuclear war, critics like Smith say.
But the Trump administration’s 2018 Nuclear Posture Review argued that low-yield nuclear weapons would raise the threshold for nuclear war.
“Expanding flexible U.S. nuclear options now to include low-yield options is important for the preservation of credible deterrence against regional aggression,” the review said. “It will raise the nuclear threshold and help ensure that potential adversaries perceive no possible advantage in limited nuclear escalation, making nuclear employment less likely.”
Pentagon Budget Uncertainty
Amid the policy and procurement debates, another source of uncertainty on defense spending is coming from Trump himself.
He blasted the current $716 billion Pentagon budget, tweeting earlier this month that it was “crazy.” But days later he reportedly said he wanted to give the Pentagon $750 billion, above the $733 billion the DOD requested.
With readiness concerns, expensive aircraft programs like the F-35 already in the works, and lower recruiting rates also top of mind, Pentagon officials may have to make some tough choices on spending if Trump flip-flops again and seeks a lower defense budget.
“I think if they are truly squeezed, they won’t prioritize nuclear weapons over conventional forces,” Collina said.