WASHINGTON — Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James would be "concerned" if the US implemented a formal no-first-use policy for nuclear weapons, at a time when the White House reportedly is considering such a move.
Speaking Aug. 3 to Defense News and sister publication Air Force Times, James also said the service is briefing members of Congress that have expressed doubts about the Pentagon's nuclear modernization strategy in order to make the case for funding the new Long Range Standoff (LRSO) nuclear cruise missile.
Over the past month, reports have emerged that President Barack Obama is considering enacting a no-first-use policy — in which the US would pledge not to preemptively launch a nuclear strike against another nation — before leaving office.
As would be expected, the nonproliferation community has cheered the idea, and a group of congressional Democrats recently wrote to Obama urging the adoption of that policy. But those who view nuclear deterrence as key to American security have expressed concerns such a plan would put the US on its heels, especially given recent Russian modernization of its nuclear arsenal.
Asked specifically her opinion on a no-first-use policy, James said, "Personally, I have questions about it. I would be concerned with it."
Those comments echo remarks from William Cohen, a former defense secretary from 1997-2001 under President Bill Clinton. Cohen told Defense News July 21 that he doesn't support a no-first-use declaration. Instead, Cohen said he hopes to see "a very rigorous diminution in our numbers and much greater cooperation with countries who possess" nuclear weapons.
James added that "I imagine we will hear more about [Obama's nuclear-policy thoughts] in the next few months."
That strategy, at this point, appears to include moving forward with major recapitalization efforts on a number of nuclear programs. Last week, the Air Force offered a request for proposals on both the LRSO and the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) programs, the latter of which would replace the aging Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles.
That the service went ahead with both those RFPs, James noted, "speaks for itself" in terms of how vital the Air Force feels those modernization efforts are.
But on the Hill, the nuclear modernization strategy has increasingly come under a microscope from congressional Democrats. In particular, the LRSO, which would replace the service's Air Launched Cruise Missile (ALCM) program, has become a target as a potential cut in order to free up money for the coming "bow wave" of modernization costs expected to hit the Pentagon in the mid-2020s.
Leading the charge against LRSO are two powerful Democrats: House Armed Services Ranking Member Adam Smith, Wash., and Senate Intelligence Committee Vice-President Dianne Feinstein of California. The latter is particularly notable, as control of the Senate now appears a possibility for the Democratic party following November's election.
James called the discussions over LRSO the result of a "reasonable difference of opinion among people who are all trying to do the same thing," and said the service is trying to provide information that shows why the LRSO is important going forward.
"Our job is ultimately [to provide] the best military advice we can give," James said. "We go over there. We brief. We brief both in unclassified and classified ways that 'This I why we believe the LRSO is needed'."
That argument rests on the need for the Air Force to have a "credible" deterrent for its bomber fleet, she said.
"We're going to have our B-21s eventually, but our B-52s we also anticipate keeping for a substantial period of time. And without a standoff capability, those B-52s won't be able to do the job in the mid-2020s," James said. "So it's directly related to that threat, the Anti-Access/Area Denial kind of environment. So we go to Congress and we explain this as well.
"It really does relate to what is going on around the world. That's why we need it. But, again, reasonable people have differing opinions."
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.