The House is Setting a New, More Rational Direction for US Nuclear Policy

July 10, 2019 | 1:46 pm
Eryn MacDonald
Global Security Analyst

The House today began debating its version of the Fiscal Year 2020 National Defense Authorization Act, Congress’ annual effort to oversee US security policy and set defense program funding levels. What’s different this year is the bill signals a new, much-needed change in direction for US nuclear weapons policy, one that would reduce the nuclear threat and cut some spending on these weapons.

The House bill stands in stark contrast with the version the Senate passed easily in late June, which would fully fund the Trump administration’s nuclear programs and in some cases even increase funding. We support passage of the House version of the NDAA; if its version becomes law, it will be a victory not only for US security, but also for common sense.

The House bill is chock-full of positive provisions. For example, it would prohibit deployment of the Trump administration’s new “low-yield” nuclear warhead; cut funding for an unnecessary replacement for the current ground-based intercontinental ballistic missile; and reduce the excessive, but congressionally mandated, requirement for the number of plutonium pits that the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) has been told to produce.

Rep. Adam Smith speaking at a Ploughshares Fund event

This new, rational direction in nuclear policy is being spearheaded by Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), the new chair of the House Armed Services Committee and an outspoken critic of many of the Trump administration’s nuclear weapons policies. He and his like-minded colleagues are using their newly minted majority power to rethink the role that nuclear weapons play in US security policy.

Defunds W76-2 “low-yield” warhead

The W76-2 “low-yield” warhead, which would be deployed on submarine-launched ballistic missiles, is an ill-conceived attempt to lower the threshold for nuclear war. As former Secretary of Defense William Perry and other experts have written, the W76-2 is “dangerous, unjustified, and redundant.” It would thrust US ballistic-missile submarines into regional conflicts instead of reserving them for their crucial role as a nuclear deterrent, providing a secure means of retaliation if they should ever be needed.

The Trump administration requested $19.6 million for the Navy to begin installing these new warheads on missiles later this year. The House defense authorization bill sensibly zeros out this money, but Republicans plan to offer an amendment to the bill on the House floor that would restore that funding. Fortunately, the amendment is unlikely to pass. Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee have twice attempted to restore the money and failed along party lines both times., The House Appropriations Committee also eliminated funding for the low-yield warhead, and the full House already rejected an attempt to restore the W76-2 money in an appropriations bill by a 236 to 192 vote.

Cuts funding for Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent

The House bill would cut $103 million from the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent, the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) being developed to replace the existing Minuteman III missile by 2030. The bill also initially called for an independent study of options that could extend the Minuteman III’s life to 2050. This would postpone spending on the new ICBM, which some estimates expect to cost $100 billion. Republicans in the Armed Services Committee, however, succeeded in removing that study requirement. Fortunately, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) has submitted an amendment that would restore a version of the independent study. Extending the life of the Minuteman III instead of building a new missile is a reasonable, cost-saving option that could facilitate an eventual phase out of the land-based leg of the US nuclear triad as the older missiles reach the end of their lives.

Reduces pit production requirements

The House defense authorization bill also reduces a congressionally mandated requirement for the NNSA to produce plutonium pits, the fissile core of nuclear weapons. In 2015, Congress passed a law mandating that the NNSA must demonstrate that it can produce 80 pits annually by 2027. A provision in this year’s Senate version of the defense authorization bill goes further, requiring the NNSA to produce80 pits per year by 2030, not simply demonstrate the capacity to do so.

The House version, conversely, reduces the 80-pit requirement to 30 pits per year by 2026. This would provide a more than adequate capacity for the foreseeable future. It makes sense for the United States to have some ability to produce pits, but there is no sound reason to require such a large number. Indeed, based on experiments conducted by scientists at the weapons laboratories, in 2007 the NNSA concluded that most pits have a lifetime of at least 100 years. A new study is underway that will determine whether they can last even longer.

The House version of the bill includes a “Sense of Congress” provision that the NNSA should prioritize pit production at its existing manufacturing site at the Los Alamos National Laboratory instead of developing a second pit production capability at the incomplete and abandoned Mixed Oxide (MOX) fuel facility at South Carolina’s Savannah River Site, as the NNSA has proposed. The House Armed Services Committee rejected an amendment offered by Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) that attempted to retain the 80-pit- per-year requirement and supported the NNSA’s two-site proposal for pit production.

A recent congressionally mandated independent study concluded that none of the options considered for pit production at either one or two sites “can be expected to provide 80 [pits per year] by 2030.” The study, conducted by the Institute for Defense Analyses, also concluded that “[e]ventually achieving a production rate of 80 [pits per year] is possible for all options considered . . . but will be extremely challenging.” Additionally, the study found that NNSA cost projections for the project are unrealistically low.

Heeding the study’s conclusions, the House defense authorization bill would significantly cut funding for pit production by $241 million, to $471 million. The Senate version of the bill, by contrast, would fully fund the president’s request at $711 million.

Reconsiders the Trump administration’s proposed new nuclear warhead

The Trump administration has proposed to replace the current W78 warhead carried on Minuteman missiles with a new W87-1 warhead. This new warhead would use the new plutonium pits that the NNSA is planning to produce but, as noted above, would not be able to complete on the schedule or budget currently proposed.

If the W87-1 warhead goes forward, it would be the first new US nuclear warhead produced since the end of the Cold War. The NNSA estimates the cost to produce the W87-1 will be more than $15 billion, not including the additional cost of producing the plutonium pits, which the NNSA calculates would run $14 billion to $28 billion, an estimate that the Institute for Defense Analyses study concluded is too low.

The House bill would require the Pentagon to assess alternatives for replacing the W78 and slash W87-1 funding from $112 million to $53 million. An even better solution would be to withdraw the W78 and store it, and deploy more of the existing W87 warheads that are already on top of half of the 400 deployed Minuteman missiles. There are more than enough additional W87 warheads in storage to make this possible.

Considers a ‘no-first-use’ policy

There’s even more to like about the House defense authorization bill. For example, it would require a federally funded research and development center to assess the risks and benefits of a US no-first-use nuclear policy, including gauging the potential reactions by US allies. Rep. Smith has already introduced legislation that would make it US policy to not be the first nation to use nuclear weapons, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has introduced an identical bill in the Senate. The House bill would also require the undersecretary of defense for policy to produce a report on the Pentagon’s efforts to include the risks of an inadvertent escalation to nuclear war in its decision making.

(Note that this summary does not include how the House defense authorization bill addresses missile defense issues. This is another area where the new House Armed Services Committee leadership has made a sensible change in direction, and it will be the subject of a separate post.)

What now?

The full House will take up the defense authorization bill today and is expected to put the finishing touches on the bill by Friday. As mentioned above, Republicans likely will again attempt to restore funding to deploy the W76-2. They also have offered an amendment that would remove the independent study of no-first-use, which they failed to do in the House Armed Services Committee.

With Democratic control of the House, these new amendments will likely be defeated, but the fate of the House bill as a whole is still uncertain. Some of the bill’s nuclear weapons provisions as well as some provisions regarding immigration and border security have prompted some House Republicans to say they will refuse to pass it. Likewise, some progressive Democrats are unhappy that the bill does not significantly cut the overall military budget, which totals $733 billion. If those Dems also refuse to vote in favor, it is unclear what will happen next.

The Union of Concerned Scientists supports passage of the House defense authorization bill and hopes that the final version includes the sensible provisions detailed above. The Senate passed its version of the bill in late June, authorizing the full amount requested by the president for nuclear programs and, in some cases, increasing funding.

Assuming that the full House passes its bill, it will be left up to a conference committee, where the four leaders of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees will try to work out a compromise version that can be passed by both chambers. Given the fundamental differences between the two versions, that likely will be a difficult task, but national — and international — security hangs in the balance.