WASHINGTON ― The U.S. government’s budget cycle is just getting started, but already Democrats and Republicans are in a war of words over whether to curb or continue the trajectory of spending on nuclear weapons modernization.
Alongside early fighting over the defense top line, which is expected to be flat in President Joe Biden’s budget proposal this spring, Democrats have offered bills and urged the president to cut programs like the nuclear-armed, sea-launched cruise missile, while Republicans are publicly pressing to continue programs that mostly began during the Obama administration.
The Biden administration is expected to conduct a broad nuclear posture review that would examine plans to modernize the nuclear triad — an effort estimated to cost $1.7 trillion over 30 years. A separate Pentagon review is reportedly underway on the new W76-2 submarine-launched, low-yield nuclear warhead, which Democrats have mounted an effort to kill.
Calls from progressive lawmakers for Biden to pause the Air Force’s Ground Based Strategic Deterrent, a new intercontinental ballistic missile, saw new GOP pushback on Monday. The Air Force awarded Northrop Grumman a $13.3 billion contract in September to develop GBSD.
Speaking at the conservative Heritage Foundation, the top Republican on the Senate Strategic Forces Subcommittee, Sen. Deb Fischer, warned against freezing any nuclear modernization activities while the Biden administration conducts its expected nuclear posture review.
“We shouldn’t be conducting [a review] to pause nuclear modernization. That should not happen,” the Nebraska lawmaker said. “Modernization already is just-in-time, if not late-to-need, and so we don’t have the luxury of pausing or delaying these important programs.”
Though flat spending is predicted between the defense budget proposal for fiscal 2022 and the $741 billion defense budget for fiscal 2021, Fischer suggested nuclear weapons shouldn’t take a hit. She pointed to testimony from Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin that the military’s No. 1 priority is the nuclear deterrent.
“If you prioritize something, that’s the first thing you fund,” she said. “Nuclear modernization is not cheap, but it’s necessary.”
Fischer called for increasing the budget of the Energy Department’s National Nuclear Security Administration to produce more replacement plutonium pits for aging nuclear weapons. NNSA’s budget won a $3 billion budget increase from Congress last year after a major debate within the Trump administration.
Among Democrats who have expressed concerns about nuclear modernization costs, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash., has noted that America’s nuclear arsenal would tower over China’s, even if Beijing doubles its arsenal. At a March 5 event, Smith said he places priority on nuclear command-and-command systems and plutonium pit production.
“I just wish we would do a serious look at whether or not we can achieve the necessary level of deterrence for less money like China has,” Smith said.
“We have to defend ourselves against nuclear attack. It is the core and most important mission, completely agreed, but then [modernization advocates] leap from that to ‘therefore, we have to spend $1.5 trillion on nuclear weapons,’ ” Smith said. “Is that really necessary to have a deterrent?”
One powerful Democrat who voiced support for nuclear triad modernization is Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack Reed, D-R.I. “We have to modernize the triad and maintain the triad, in my view, for strategic reasons that have been successful for about 70 years,” he told reporters last month.
Talking up nuclear triad modernization in a call with reporters on Monday, HASC ranking member Mike Rogers, R-Ala., said he expects Austin to recommend Biden continue the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent program. Rogers also projected that Smith would try to scrap it, but fail.
“He’s done that pretty much every year as long as I can remember, but I know he won’t have any votes on our side and most of the Democrat members will be with us on that too,” Rogers said. “I have confidence that GBSD is going to move forward in a timely manner. I don’t see it stopping.”
Rogers affirmed that panel Republicans would be unified against any cuts to the sea-launched cruise missile when the defense policy bill is marked up in committee some time this summer.
“We’ll hold the line. I’m sure there’ll be a big debate,” Rogers said. “We’ve got some people who, as long as there are TV cameras in the room, are going to run their mouths, but I think we have the votes.”
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.