Midterm Elections Could Derail Plans for Low-Yield Nukes
The Trump administration’s push to equip Navy submarines with low-yield nuclear weapons is on track, but it could be imperiled if Democrats take control of Congress after the November elections, analysts said.
The 2018 nuclear posture review called for acquiring low-yield, submarine-launched ballistic missile warheads in the “near term” to deter countries like Russia from using their low-yield arsenals against the United States or its allies. The weapons would be obtained by modifying existing warheads rather than building brand new ones.
Democratic lawmakers have made several failed attempts to prevent the project from moving forward in a Republican-controlled Congress.
“We don’t need to build any … low-yield weapons that dangerously increase the likelihood that they’ll be used,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said in a statement after the Senate appropriations committee passed an energy and water bill that would allocate $65 million for the effort in fiscal year 2019.
The House and Senate versions of the fiscal year 2019 National Defense Authorization Act approved $65 million for the project.
The two chambers will have to negotiate and then pass compromise bills — and President Donald Trump will have to sign them — before the funding is allocated.
Feinstein said the warhead modification would take two years to complete if fully funded.
Kingston Reif, director of disarmament and threat reduction policy at the Arms Control Association, said the effort is “not that technically complicated” compared to a major life-extension program or delivery system recapitalization. “It’s something that [the National Nuclear Security Administration] can do relatively easily and quickly.”
Reif estimated that creating the new weapon would cost upwards of $100 million, a relatively small amount in the context of the United States’ nuclear force investment plans, which have an estimated price tag of about $1.2 trillion over the next 30 years.
“I don’t think the cost will be the big impediment,” said Bryan Clark, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. “The concern I think is mainly a policy one of what’s the value of a low-yield warhead on a ballistic missile. … That might be the thing that kills it rather than the money.”
The fate of the project could hinge on the outcome of the 2018 midterms, Reif and Clark said.
“If one or both chambers [of Congress] flip in November we can expect a battle royale whether to continue to fund” the program, Reif said.
Clark said: “If the Democrats take the House or Senate then these efforts will slow or stop because they’re not going to have as much impetus under a Democratic regime.”