Sunday, May 06, 2018

Nuclear spending stands out in debate among competing defense priorities

Nuclear spending stands out in debate among competing defense priorities

May 02, 2018 |
Tony Bertuca
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The Defense Department wants to spend $1.2 trillion in the coming decades to modernize the U.S. nuclear triad, a sum that senior Pentagon officials behind the recent Nuclear Posture Review argue is both necessary and affordable, despite concerns on Capitol Hill that the plan will prove unrealistic amid mounting deficits.
David Trachtenberg, the deputy under secretary of defense for policy, said at a Wednesday breakfast in Washington that spending to modernize the triad will, at its height, account for 6 percent to 7 percent of the overall defense budget.
"It really is a question of how one assesses affordability," he said. "Yes, of course there's a cost to the modernization program. I would argue there's a greater cost of failing to prevent the kind of catastrophe that we're talking about here. I certainly think the costs are affordable."
Though Trachtenberg said support for the nuclear triad has traditionally been bipartisan, there has been some dissent from senior congressional Democrats, who have voiced concern about the cost and two controversial recommendations in the NPR calling for two new, supplemental weapon systems.
"What we need to do is we need to lay out the rationale behind the recommendations that we are making," Trachtenberg said. "I think there's a case to be made."
The debate will play out on Capitol Hill as Democrats seek political leverage over Republicans amid historic deficits driven by the GOP's $1.4 trillion tax reform package and a $1.3 trillion omnibus fiscal year 2018 spending bill with a significant defense funding boost.
Perhaps the most vocal opponent of increased nuclear spending is House Armed Services Committee Ranking Member Adam Smith (D-WA), who recently told Defense Secretary Jim Mattis that DOD should spend less on the U.S. nuclear triad.
"We ought to be able to come up with a nuclear deterrent strategy that costs us a lot less money," he said during an April 12 hearing. "I don't think we need to spend $1.2 trillion modernizing our nuclear weapons. We certainly need to modernize them, but, again, I'll emphasize -- I've said this before in hearings -- China has 275 nuclear weapons. That's it. We have 15, 20 times as many."
Beyond fiscal matters, Smith has also said he is worried about the Pentagon's NPRwhich calls for lowering the yield of some existing submarine-launched ballistic missile warheads and reinstating the sea-launched cruise missile program to address threats posed by Russia and China
Senate Armed Services Committee Ranking Member Jack Reed (D-RI) recently voice similar concerns, noting that disagreement over the two supplemental systems could threaten the bipartisan consensus the nuclear triad normally enjoys in Congress.
"In any case, such a proposal certainly opens up a debate of deeply held opinions," he said during a March 20 committee hearing.
"While this debate may be important to have -- I think it is important to have, indeed -- I worry that it may disrupt a bipartisan consensus that presently ensures the modernization of the triad." Reed continued. "This process will take decades, and I believe it should be our highest priority and sole focus."
Specifically, Reed said he is most concerned about the low-yield submarine-launched warhead.
"It's my understanding that this system is in response to Russia's military doctrine of using a small-yield nuclear weapon as a means to escalate to de-escalate or escalate to win a conventional conflict," he said. "The Russian doctrine of 'escalate to de-escalate' could easily spin out of control if our response to their low-yield weapon is to use a similar one, which could escalate into an exchange of larger weapons. We have to devote considerable effort to wargaming this problem and ensure that existing systems, both conventional and nuclear, cannot meet this doctrinal challenge of 'escalate to de-escalate.'"
At the same hearing, U.S. Strategic Command chief Gen. John Hyten said, "The most important thing is the continuing modernization of the triad, because that is the foundation of our nation's defense and that's the strength that will continue to deter Russia into the out years."
Trachtenberg said Wednesday that much of the criticism of the NPR and its recommendations of the two supplemental systems has been "hyperbolic" and a "significant mischaracterization" of the Pentagon's position.
"If nuclear weapons are employed in conflict, it's because deterrence failed," he said. "The goal of the 2018 NPR and the conclusions and the recommendations it makes is to do the best job we can to make sure that deterrence simply will not fail."

Erica Fein 
Advocacy Director
Win Without War | (202) 232-3317 x 105 | @enfein | @winwithoutwar
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