This week, the Senate Armed Services Committee will take its turn to mark up the FY 2019 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). This also gives it an opportunity to weigh in on the Trump administration’s proposal for a new, lower-yield warhead for the Trident D5 submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM), funding for which is included in the bill.
The new warhead, designated the W76-2, will reportedly have a yield of 6.5 kilotons and would replace some of the W76 warheads currently on the Trident missiles, which have a yield of 100 kilotons.
The NDAA as it is now written would authorize $88 million in spending for the new warhead: $65 million from the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration’s budget and $23 million in Department of Defense funds. The House Armed Services Committee earlier this month voted along party lines to reject an amendment that would have eliminated funding for the program from its version of the bill.
Despite the administration’s rhetoric about the need to strengthen deterrence, there is no good reason to develop a new warhead. As the head of the US Strategic Command, General Hyten, said himself in Congressional testimony earlier this year, “I have everything I need today to deter Russia from doing anything against the United States of America.” Worse, as many experts have pointed out, the new warhead could cause confusion for Russia and potentially increase the chances of miscalculation leading to an escalating nuclear exchange. Former Secretary of Defense William Perry has called such low-yield weapons “a gateway to a nuclear catastrophe.”
Opposition to this new program may be stronger in the Senate than in the House. It is certainly ripe for debate, given the dangers it presents and the questionable rationale the administration has put forward for it. To help make the case, more than twenty NGOs sent a letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell that lays out the arguments against a new lower-yield Trident warhead.
It is unlikely that the Senate, in its current configuration, will stop the program, but it is important at the very least to ask the relevant questions about why we need such a weapon (we don’t) and how it would really affect US security (by decreasing it).