WASHINGTON — Congressional Republicans are pushing back against the president’s plan to retire an aging nuclear weapon, decrying the effort during a series of hearings this week dedicated to the administration’s fiscal 2023 budget request for nuclear forces and atomic energy.
The hearings previewed what is likely to be a renewed debate over retiring the B83 megaton gravity bomb as Congress drafts the annual defense authorization bill, starting in June. The Air Force also plans to retire the only aircraft capable of carrying the B83, the B-2 Spirit stealth bomber, by 2032 at the latest.
“The rationale of this administration to retire the B83 gravity bomb without a replacement capability is not clear to me,” Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., the ranking member of the House Strategic Forces Subcommittee, said at a Tuesday hearing. “In fact, it is my understanding that not only is there no replacement capability, but the process to identify candidates for a replacement capability has not even yet started.”
Lamborn argued that the B83 — which is 80 times more powerful than the bomb the United States dropped on Hiroshima during World War II — is necessary for targeting “hard and deeply buried targets.”
But the assistant defense secretary for space policy, John Plumb, who serves on the Nuclear Weapons Council, countered that the B83 does not adequately address the challenge of deeply buried targets. “It’s of increasingly limited utility, and retiring it does not change the hard and deeply buried target set,” Plumb said.
The Biden administration opted to keep funding the B83 last year in its FY22 budget request, but subsequently decided not to maintain the bomb in its 2022 Nuclear Posture Review. The decision revives former President Barack Obama’s efforts to defund the nearly 4-decade-old megaton bomb. Former President Donald Trump then derailed the Obama administration’s plans when he decided to retain the B83, which is the last remaining megaton bomb in the U.S. nuclear arsenal.
Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., also pushed back against retiring the B83 during a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing on Wednesday with officials from the National Nuclear Security Administration.
“My understanding is that the number of targets the B83 is credible for has been shrinking,” NNSA Administrator Jill Hruby told Kennedy.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., encouraged the Biden administration to retire the B83 as soon as possible during that same hearing, highlighting the partisan battle lines around the gravity bomb.
Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., who had sought to kill the B83 in legislation he introduced last year that would slash $73 billion from the nuclear weapons budget over a decade, said he was “heartened” by Biden’s plans to retire the megaton bomb.
“No sane leader could contemplate deploying a nuclear bomb that is 100 times more powerful than the one dropped on Hiroshima,” Markey told Defense News. “We must resist ‘Dr. Strangelove’-like efforts by Republicans to keep our last and most indiscriminate megaton bomb in the stockpile.”
Congress ultimately authorized $52 million to fund the B83 in its annual defense bill last year, despite efforts from House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash., to defund it. Smith ended up yielding to his colleagues in the Senate last year, who agreed to fund it, per the Biden administration’s request.
But now that the administration seeks to defund the B83, the Republican minority may be unable to count on much help from Senate Democrats in the quest to preserve the megaton bomb.
Bryant Harris is the Congress reporter for Defense News. He has covered the intersection of U.S. foreign policy and national security in Washington since 2014. He previously wrote for Foreign Policy, Al-Monitor, Al Jazeera English and IPS News.