WASHINGTON — Hours after top Pentagon officials traveled to the Hill to defend the need for a new nuclear-capable cruise missile, a group of nine Democratic Senators has introduced legislation to slow the development of the system, known as the Long Range Standoff Weapon, or LRSO.
The bill, headlined by Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts and announced Wednesday, would cap funding for the LRSO and its associated warhead at 2017 levels until the Trump administration submits its Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) to Congress.
"If the United States wants other countries to reduce their nuclear arsenals and restrain their nuclear war plans, we must take the lead," Markey said in a statement. "Instead of wasting billions of dollars on this dangerous new nuclear weapon that will do nothing to keep our nation safe, we should preserve America's resources and pursue a global ban on nuclear cruise missiles."
Capping the LRSO spending at 2017 levels would restrict the Pentagon to spending $95.6 million for the weapon itself, and hold the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration to $220.2 million for the life-extension program on the W-80-4 warhead. Such levels likely mean a log-term delay for the development of the weapon, which is in its early stages of design and development.
The LRSO program aims to replace the air-launched cruise missile (ALCM) program with 1,000 to 1,100 cruise missiles that represent the Air Force’s standoff nuclear delivery capability. The ALCM is set to expire around 2030.
The non-proliferation community has pushed against the LRSO, arguing it is an inherently destabilizing weapon, as any nation the U.S. could threaten with conventional cruise missiles could mistake those weapons as nuclear and escalate accordingly.
But Pentagon officials — including a group that made an appearance on the Hill just hours before Markey’s announcement — argue that the LRSO is necessary to maintain a credible deterrent against foreign nations.
Joining Markey in backing the bill are Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.; Jeff Merkley, D-Ore.; Ron Wyden, D-Ore.; Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.; Al Franken, D-Minn.; Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.; Chris Van Hollen, D-Md.; and Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio. While Sanders is technically an independent, he caucuses with the Democratic Party and waged a hard-fought war for the Democratic nomination during the last presidential election.
This is not the first attempt by Democrats to target the LRSO. Last year, Feinstein pledged to hold hearings on her subcommittee about the need for the weapon and blasted it as unnecessary.
More concretely, House Armed Services Ranking Member Adam Smith co-sponsored an amendment to the annual defense authorization bill that would have cut $95.6 million in authorization by $75.8 million. That motion was defeated on a largely partisan vote, with five GOP members voted in favor of the amendment and 26 Democrats voted against it.
But those moves came at a time when Democrats believed they would retain the White House and potentially pick up control of the Senate and House. After the results of the election came in, Rep. Jim Garamendi, D-Calif., an opponent of the LRSO, conceded that nuclear modernization will continue under the Republican Congress.
Support for nuclear modernization programs remains strong on the Hill, with many Democrats backing the plans — put forth under the Obama administration — to recapitalize the Pentagon’s nuclear submarines, bombers, ICBMs, missiles and bombs, and the associated command and control structure.
A recent review by the Congressional Budget Office puts the price tag for modernizing the nuclear enterprise at $400 billion over the next decade, with further costs down the road.
Because of that bipartisan support, it is unlikely Markey’s bill will go anywhere, barring something dramatic — such as the Trump administration threatening the New START nuclear reduction treaty with Russia. Analysts warn that such a move could threaten Democratic support for the LRSO.
Speaking to the House Armed Services Committee Wednesday, Gen. Paul Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called the LRSO an "integral part of our modernization and replacement strategy" and said the weapon was vital to ensure the current bomber fleet remains a viable threat in an era of modern air defenses, where flying a B-52 into enemy territory to drop a nuclear bomb is unlikely.
"The missile itself imposes a cost on any potential nuclear adversary, because in addition to modernizing their nuclear arsenal they also have to modernize their air defense arsenals," Selva said, before offering a second reason to support the LRSO — it is the only way to negotiate a world without nuclear cruise missiles.
As counter-intuitive as that seems on the face, Selva argued to the HASC members that unilaterally getting rid of nuclear cruise missile capability, at a time when Russia continues to invest in their arsenal, would make any cruise-missile ban "unlikely"
"The places we’ve had success in negotiating types and classes of weapons out of adversary nuclear arsenals in our strategic reduction talks have been when we posses a similar capability that poses a tactical, operational and strategic problem for our adversaries," Selva said.
"We should take that to the table. We should negotiate it in a bilateral, verifiable way, so that we don’t give up the options and strategic leverage we have in the existence of the system.
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.