WASHINGTON ― The House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday rejected a series of Democratic amendments aimed at limiting the Trump administration’s pursuit of low-yield nuclear weapons to match Russia.
The amendments were sharply debated and then voted down largely along party lines during the panel’s markup of the National Defense Authorization Act. Republicans held a 33-28 majority on the panel, with one of their members, Rep. Walter Jones, absent.
Democrats argued the U.S. development of a low-yield weapon ― likely a submarine-launched cruise missile ― will be destabilizing, fuel an international arms race and lower the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons.
“We have to have a credible deterrence, but I think the Nuclear Posture Review goes way beyond credible nuclear deterrence and puts you into a position where we risk miscalculation and we could stumble into a nuclear war,” said HASC Ranking Member Adam Smith, D-Wash.
“We are on the track toward a new nuclear arms race, this time including Russia and China, the United States and perhaps other countries along the way. It’s extraordinarily dangerous, and we need to be very cautious here,” said Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif.
Republicans sided with the Pentagon, countering that the nation needs a robust nuclear program to pose a credible deterrent and keep pace with Russia and China, who they say are rapidly modernizing their nuclear arsenals.
“This committee knows what Russia’s up to with its nuclear weapons. It’s both sobering and horrifying,” said HASC Strategic Forces Subcommittee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Ala. “We also know Russia’s nuclear doctrine is to use low-yield nuclear weapons early in a conflict to get the U.S. to back down.”
Under Russia’s “escalate to de-escalate” concept, the country would be willing to use a tactical nuclear weapon in a conventional war to compel surrender, assuming NATO allies — when faced with using a strategic nuclear weapon or not responding at all — will back down in a conflict.
Republicans dealt Democrats a series of defeats on a series of proposals: Smith’s amendment to move $65 million in the bill for a low-yield nuclear weapon to readiness; Garamendi’s amendment to bar authorization for a low-yield nuclear weapon unless DoD submits a report on the weapon’s strategic stability and Rep. Susan Davis’ reduction in spending on the Long Range Standoff cruise missile.
The panel voted along party lines, 33-27, to endorse the Nuclear Posture Review, which raised eyebrows with its call for a low-yield warhead for the submarine-launched ballistic missiles.
The bill itself is supportive of the Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review, authorizing $65 million for developing and producing a low-yield warhead.
The bill also repeals a 15-year prohibition on developing and producing low-yield nuclear warheads absent congressional authorization.
Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.