WASHINGTON — A group of ten Democratic senators have penned a letter to US President Barack Obama urging him to cancel development of a new nuclear-capable cruise missile, in what appears to be the next salvo from nonproliferation advocates on Capitol Hill against the weapon.
At issue is the Long-Range Standoff (LRSO) cruise missile, which will replace the Air-Launched Cruise Missile (ALCM) program with 1,000 to 1,100 cruise missiles, representing the US Air Force's standoff nuclear delivery capability. The ALCM program is scheduled to age out in 2030.
Proponents say the LRSO is vital to maintaining America's nuclear posture into the future. But opponents argue the weapon is too costly and unnecessary given other nuclear options, with a vocal minority in Congress starting to advocate heavily for that position.
"Independent estimates suggest that nuclear weapons sustainment and modernization plans could cost nearly one trillion dollars over the next 30 years, putting enormous pressure on our defense budget at a time when non-nuclear systems will also require major expenditures," wrote the authors of the letter. "In particular, we urge you to cancel plans to spend a least $20 billion on a new nuclear air-launched cruise missile, the Long Range Standoff weapon, which would provide an unnecessary capability that could increase the risk of nuclear war."
The letter was signed by Sens. Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Diane Feinstein and Barbara Boxer of California, Al Franken of Minnesota, Jeff Merkley of Oregon, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Patrick Leahy of Vermont, Ron Wyden of Oregon, and Bernie Sanders, the Vermont senator who recently ended his campaign for the presidency.
Feinstein has been leading the Senate's charge against the LRSO, pledging to hold hearings on the issue and questioning the cost estimates provided by the Air Force. She has been aided in the House by Rep. Adam Smith, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee.
Last month, members of the House voted down an amendment to cut $75.8 million from the LRSO program by 159-261, but both Smith and Feinstein vowed to keep fighting on the issue.
The letter also urged Obama to officially adopt a policy of no-first-use of nuclear weapons, something the United States has traditionally been unwilling to do.
"In light of our unmatched conventional military capabilities, we do not need to rely on the threat of nuclear first-use to deter non-nuclear attacks on our homeland or our allies," the authors wrote. "By adopting a policy of no-first-use of nuclear weapons, the United States could reduce the risk of accidental nuclear conflict while deterring both conventional and nuclear threats to our security."
Neither the desire to drop the LRSO, nor the goal of a no-first-use policy, appears likely to gain much traction with Donald Trump, officially named the Republican nominee for president this week.
Speaking to The New York Times, Trump reaffirmed a commitment to the so-called nuclear triad but was noncommittal on the no-first-use idea.
"Depends on who we are talking about, it depends on who we are talking about. I would only make that commitment as the agreement is being signed. I wouldn't want to play my cards. I don't want to say that," Trump said. "I will do everything within my power never to be in a position where we have to use nuclear power because that's a whole different ballgame. That's very important to me. I will do everything in my power never to be in a position where we will have to use nuclear power. It's very important to me."
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.