Gen. John Hyten’s nuclear wish list is long, and in recent years Congress has given the leader of Offutt-based U.S. Strategic Command what he wants.
New Columbia-class ballistic missile submarines? Check.
Updated nuclear B-61-12 gravity bombs? Done.
Nuclear-capable B-21 bombers? In the works.
New submarine-launched cruise missiles and low-yield weapons for “small” sub-based nuclear attacks? Just around the corner.
In his 2½ years leading StratCom — whose top task is to prepare the U.S. for nuclear war — Hyten has sounded off bluntly, and often, on the need to upgrade these weapons, most of which were built between the 1960s and the 1980s.
These upgrades are the most important part of the defense budget, Hyten told Congress this spring, and he urged them to fully fund StratCom’s nuclear program to the tune of $25 billion. That request included $8.4 billion to put toward replacing subs, bombers and missiles expected to reach the end of their useful life between 2025 and 2035.
The Russians already have begun their own program, and they are ahead of us, Hyten has said. A modern nuclear arsenal is needed to deter Russia — or any other rival — from attempting an attack, he’s said multiple times, noting that a world without nuclear weapons is the world that produced two cataclysmic world wars in the last century.
“This is about our nation’s survival,” Hyten told the House Armed Services Committee. “We have to look at it that way and go down that path.”
For the first time, however, Hyten’s pleas to Congress have met with more than token resistance. Members of the Democratic-controlled House have come out against some key elements.
Last month they amended the House version of the 2020 Defense Authorization bill, an early step in the budget process. Voting along mostly party lines, the House committee killed funding for cruise missiles that could be launched from subs, dropped a requirement for the production of plutonium “pits” and retained funding for a “No First Use” nuclear weapon policy — something Hyten opposes. These provisions conflict with the equivalent bill put forward by the Republican-led Senate Armed Services Committee.
“Full modernization is not on autopilot anymore,” said Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists. “The new Congress wants to ask questions.”
The shift comes at a time when increased partisan discourse could make it more difficult to iron out differences. It also comes when heightened confrontation with Iran, ongoing missile testing by North Korea and strained U.S.-Russia relations could push defense issues back toward the front burner.
Earlier this year, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office projected that the U.S. will have to spend $494 billion to maintain and update its nuclear weapons.
“For years and years and years, it was essentially apolitical,” former Nebraska Sen. and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said of the defense budget process. “You compromised. You didn’t call each other names. You got it done, for the good of the country.”
The Democratic takeover of the House last November led to the rise of Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., to the chairmanship of the House Armed Services Committee. Smith put roadblocks in the path of some of Hyten’s most cherished programs and has given opponents of nuclear weapons their most prominent voice in Congress in decades.
“We support everything Congressman Smith is trying to do,” said Tim Collina, policy director for the Ploughshares Fund, an anti-nuclear group that arose from the nuclear freeze movement of the 1980s.
Smith threw down the gauntlet last fall with a speech at Ploughshares’ annual conference, less than two weeks after the election. In addition to the “No First Use” policy, he called for:
- A “do-over” of the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review, which he viewed as too expensive and too bellicose. Hyten was the driving force behind its conclusions, and one of its champions.
- Negotiating new and stronger nuclear arms deals to replace U.S.-Russia treaties — the broken
- Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty and the endangered New START Treaty.
- Cancellation of plans to deploy the submarine-launched, low-yield nuclear weapons sought by Hyten.
Smith also questioned the continued need for the nuclear triad, particularly the ground-based Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles now housed in silos in western Nebraska as well as Colorado, Montana, North Dakota and Wyoming.
The Ploughshares group does support some modernization, Collina said. Costly programs to develop the new Columbia-class ballistic missile submarines (to replace existing Ohio-class subs) and the new B-21 strategic bomber (to replace B-52 and B-2 bombers) have drawn relatively little opposition.
“There’s a consensus, more or less, on the need for modernization — but not exactly what that means,” Collina said. “(President) Obama kind of punted it to the military services. He took his eyes off the ball. The military services kind of came up with, ‘Let’s modernize everything.’ ”
Democrats have focused their fire on the low-yield nuclear weapons for submarines. Low-yield weapons are smaller than ICBMs and already are being built by removing part of the explosive power of existing missiles and then redeploying them on subs.
“It’s basically taking an existing weapon and making it less powerful,” said Matthew Kroenig, an associate professor or government at Georgetown University who specializes in nuclear policy.
Kroenig, who advised the Republican presidential campaigns of Mitt Romney in 2012 and Marco Rubio in 2016, said both sides had low-yield weapons during the Cold War and agreed to give them up. Most were destroyed, but some were retained — primarily by Russia.
The Russians, he said, have war-gamed a strategy called “escalate to de-escalate,” which involves firing a few smaller nuclear weapons during a regional conflict, betting that the U.S. wouldn’t launch a full-scale response.
“The idea is that, ‘Oh my God, we’re not going to fight a nuclear war over Estonia,’ ” Kroenig said.
While Hyten sees an increased U.S. presence of low-yield weapons as a deterrent, Smith and his allies see them as dangerous because they encourage an idea that nuclear wars could be won. He counsels against the idea of “an acceptable nuclear war.”
Low-yield weapons represent a small fraction of the U.S. arsenal. Smith could face a much bigger battle should he try to remove a leg of the nuclear triad by not replacing Minuteman III ICBMs, which were first deployed in 1970.
The air-land-sea triad has been the bedrock of U.S. and Russian nuclear strategy since the 1960s. In speeches and interviews, Hyten has described why each leg is needed:
- Land-based missiles, he says, are the “most ready,” because they are in place and can be launched at a moment’s notice.
- Sea-based missiles are the “most survivable” because they are hidden beneath the ocean aboard submarines and can be deployed anywhere. No conceivable pre-emptive strike could eliminate them.
- Missiles launched or bombs dropped from airplanes are the “most flexible,” because they can be recalled or launched toward a new target.
Collina, though, sees flaws in the triad strategy. Ground-based missiles, he said, lead to instability by forcing nuclear nations to build more nuclear weapons. Critics say the 400 or so missile silos in western Nebraska and nearby states serve as a “nuclear sponge,” forcing rivals to waste large numbers of weapons to destroy them or risk being destroyed itself.
“The ICBMs are sitting ducks,” he said. We’re spending $150 billion to build something that will be destroyed in the ground?”
That should be of special concern to Nebraskans, Collina said, because any Russian nuclear campaign would likely focus most heavily on the western Plains.
In his view, submarine-launched missiles provide all the nuclear deterrence America needs.
“If we give up the ICBMs tomorrow, what have we lost?” Collina said. “We have enough warheads to end Russia as a viable state. If we can buy deterrence for less, we should.”
But Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., who serves on the House Armed Services Committee, said it’s too risky to give up such a significant part of our nuclear shield.
“It’s putting too many eggs in one basket,” said Bacon, who is a retired Air Force brigadier general. “Four hundred ICBMs give you deterrence, because nobody is going to take them all out.
“If we take them off the table,” he added, “it makes us more vulnerable.”
Hyten says no part of the triad should be eliminated without a similar move by our opponents. He said as much this spring in response to a question by Nebraska Republican Sen. Deb Fischer, who serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee.
“Our triad, our modernization program, is the minimum essential capabilities required to defend this nation,” he said. “We have to defend against the most existential threat. And Russia and China, (with) their capabilities, are the most existential threat.”
Despite his public stance, Smith has not moved to undercut the triad. He and his Democratic allies face stiff challenges to make even modest changes in nuclear spending given that Republicans control the White House and the Senate.
He realizes his philosophical arguments aren’t likely to sway anyone on the other side of the aisle. He said as much in his talk to the Ploughshares Fund.
His best argument, he acknowledged, is an economic one. He said he will tell them that they can’t afford large numbers of nuclear weapons along with planes and ships and conventional weapons.
“From a dollar standpoint, you cannot have both,” Smith said. “That’s how, I think, ultimately we convince the Senate and the White House to reduce.
“It’s a choice. You can’t have it all.”
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