Pentagon Nuclear Recap Programs May Slow with Democrats in House

In this image provided by the U.S. Air Force, an unarmed Minuteman 3 intercontinental ballistic missile launches during an test just after midnight, Wednesday, May 3, 2017, at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. (2nd Lt. William
In this image provided by the U.S. Air Force, an unarmed Minuteman 3 intercontinental ballistic missile launches during an test just after midnight, Wednesday, May 3, 2017, at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. (2nd Lt. William

Would a "blue wave" in the House stifle progress of nuclear modernization efforts? The Democrats' takeover of the lower chamber may create aggressive oversight of nuclear programs in development, at least for the next two years, according to a strategic arms expert.

"Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., the soon-to-be chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, has made it clear that he believes the United States has more nuclear weapons than it needs for its security and can realistically afford," said Kingston Reif, the director of disarmament & threat reduction policy at the Arms Control Association.

Reif told Wednesday that other lawmakers are likely to follow suit in calling for additional oversight. Rep. Pete Visclosky, a Democrat from Indiana, who is in line to take over as chairman of the defense appropriations subcommittee, and Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, who is in line to take over as chairwoman of the energy and water appropriations subcommittee, could also raise concerns about the status of current modernization programs and the need for new low-yield capabilities.

If these lawmakers are unsatisfied with the Defense Department's recapitalization efforts, it's likely they will push to require "much greater transparency from DoD and the [National Nuclear Security Administration] on the cost of the effort, and the president's sole authority to order the use of nuclear weapons," Reif said.

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Democrats have already taken issue with the new Long Range Stand Off weapon, known as LRSO, a nuclear cruise missile that will be launched from aircraft such as the B-52 Stratofortress to provide an air-launched capability as part of the nuclear triad. It is intended to replace the AGM-86B Air Launched Cruise Missile, known as ALCM, a program scheduled to end by 2030.

Last year, nine Senate Democrats said they would cap funding on the LRSO program in an effort to slow its development, according to Defense News. The senators argued the modernizations would lead to a new, expensive arms race and would counter a peaceful resolution to ongoing conflicts.

Sen. Ed Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts and a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, introduced the bill, which was co-sponsored by eight other senators. The legislation would limit funding for a new nuclear-armed air-launched missile "at 2017 levels until the Trump administration submits a Nuclear Posture Review to Congress."

The Pentagon's Nuclear Posture Review was published in February.

"I would expect Smith to continue to question the redundant rationale for the LRSO and perhaps seek to slow down or even stop the program," Reif said.

The program by no means is fast-paced. The U.S. Air Force last year awarded Lockheed Martin Corp. and Raytheon Co. contracts valued at $900 million apiece to begin preliminary work on LRSO. But the pace of which the warhead is developed drives the pace which the weapon is developed, explained Frank St. John, Lockheed's executive vice president of Missiles and Fire Control.

"The program of record remains 54 months, [another] 54 months, and then five years of production ... nine years of development," St. John said in an earlier interview.

Other recap programs that could be in the crosshairs include the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent, known as GBSD, Submarine-launched Ballistic Missile (SLBM) and Submarine-launched Cruise Missile (SLCM) programs, Reif said.

The strategic arms expert said the deployment of a low-yield SLBM warhead could also be slowed, and that lawmakers may instead pursue extending the life of the current Minuteman III missiles.

"I would expect [Smith] to continue to question the rationale for 400 deployed missiles and urge, including through conditions on funding, a more thorough examination of the feasibility of extending further the life of the Minuteman III as a less-expensive alternative to GBSD," Reif said.

The Air Force last year awarded two contracts to Northrop Grumman Corp. and Boeing Co. for preliminary work on its Ground Based Strategic Deterrent program to replace its Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile system. The two contracts are not to exceed $359 million each, the service said, though Boeing was awarded a $349 million agreement and Northrop received a $328 million deal for the early stages of work.

How the future programs will progress will surely lead to contentious debates between lawmakers in the Democratic-led House and Republican-led Senate.

The Senate Armed Services Committee, for example, is likely to "even more strongly support the Trump plans" under Sen.Jim Inhofe, a Republican from Oklahoma who recently replaced the late Sen. John McCain from Arizona as chair, Reif said.

Inhofe "is an extreme hawk on the issue," Reif added.

But Democrats will use their majority leverage in the House to curtail spending if they see fit, he said.

"I expect much stronger and louder Democratic opposition to Trump's plans to augment the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. policy, expand U.S. nuclear capabilities, and retreat from the longstanding U.S. leadership role on arms control and nonproliferation," Reif said.

That said, Reif doesn't put it past lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to create roadblocks for future nuclear programs.

"To date, there has been a fragile bipartisan consensus in support of recapitalizing the U.S. nuclear arsenal, or at least there was during the Obama administration. But in the wake of the Trump NPR and last night's election, that consensus is on the verge of unraveling," he said.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @oriana0214.

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