WASHINGTON ― A group of prominent former national security officials have sent a letter to members of Congress asking that Capitol Hill not fund a major defense priority of the Trump administration: the creation of new low-yield nuclear warheads.
The letter, delivered this week to members of the relevant committees with oversight on nuclear weapons, warns that pursuing so-called tactical nuclear weapons is a “gateway to nuclear catastrophe” that “should not be pursued.”
The Pentagon’s Nuclear Posture Review, released in February, called for the creation of two new nuclear designs – a low-yield variant of the W76 nuclear warhead, launched from the Trident II missiles aboard America’s nuclear submarines, as well as a potential new sea-launched nuclear cruise missile. The letter targets the W76-2 variant, which the administration hopes to see funded starting in fiscal 2019.
The systems are supposed to deter Russia from using its own arsenal of low-yield nuclear weapons, an argument the authors of the letter do not support.
“Ultimately, the greatest concern about the proposed low-yield Trident warhead is that the president might feel less restrained about using it in a crisis. When it comes to using a nuclear weapon, restraint is a good thing,” the 32 authors write.
“The proposed ‘low-yield’ Trident warhead is dangerous, unjustified, and redundant. Congress has the power to stop the administration from starting down this slippery slope to nuclear war. We call on Congress to exercise that authority without delay.”
Among the signees of the letter are William Perry, the former defense secretary turned nonproliferation advocate; George P. Shultz, Ronald Reagan’s secretary of state; Ret. Gen. James Cartwright, the former vice chairman of the joint chiefs of staff; and Ret. Lt. Gen, Robert Gard, who used to lead National Defense University.
It is also signed by Jerry Brown, the sitting governor of California. The senior senator from California, Diane Feinstein, has been a skeptic of nuclear modernization in recent years, including during the Obama administration.
Notably, as the letter is targeted specifically at the Hill, several former members of Congress are also signed on. Those include Richard Lugar, the former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; Byron Dorgan, former chairman of the Energy & Water development Appropriations Subcommittee; Gary Hart and Mark Udall, two former Senate Armed Services Committee members; Barney Frank, the longtime Massachusetts representative; and John Tierney, former Chairman of the House Oversight national security subcommittee.
The letter comes as Democrats have launched an attack on the W76-2, with procedural attempts to strip its funding from defense and energy bills. However, the Republican majority has successfully defended that funding so far.
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.