The House and Senate voted in late June to build a new nuclear warhead that our military does not need and that make our world less safe. The debate over military policy and nuclear weapons spending bills provides a window into growing concerns among Democrats and Republicans over Congressional review of nuclear weapons policy.
Majority of senators voted to keep alive language that would have made it harder for the Trump administration to develop new nuclear weapons without congressional oversight. But Senate leaders used procedural moves to stifle the majority. So, the Senate followed the House’s lead to fund a new submarine-launched ballistic missile nuclear warhead sought by the Trump Administration.
Prominent national security leaders have warned that this new warhead could be ‘a gateway to nuclear catastrophe.’
The Pentagon and the Department of Energy are now virtually guaranteed to build a limited number of so-called “low-yield” W76-2 nuclear warheads for the Trident II D5 submarine-launched ballistic missile. This was guaranteed when both chambers approved the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA, which guides nuclear weapons policy), and the Energy and Water Development (which appropriates funds for nuclear-specific weapons work).
Prominent national security leaders, including President Reagan’s Secretary of State George Shultz, President Clinton’s Secretary of Defense William Perry, and former Senator Dick Lugar of Indiana, have warned that this new “low-yield warhead is dangerous, unjustified, and redundant.” They noted that the U.S. already deploys around 1,000 gravity bombs and air-launched cruise missiles with low-yield options. Worse, they fear that a president “might feel less restrained about using [this warhead] in a crisis,” making this weapon, in their view, “a gateway to nuclear catastrophe.”
The Senate debate did provide a moment of hope.
The Senate debate did, however, provide a moment of hope. Not only did the Senate version of the NDAA aim to fund this new submarine-launched nuclear warhead, it would eliminate a long-standing, Republican-crafted requirement that Congress specifically authorize the development of any new low-yield nuclear weapons.
Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island led a push to restore congressional oversight of when the country builds new versions of these destructive weapons. When Republican Senate leaders tried to kill his amendment that would do so, Senator Murkowski of Alaska, Senator Collins of Maine, and Senator Paul of Kentucky joined all Democrats in voting to defend Congress’ proper oversight role for nuclear weapons.
Senator Murkowski of Alaska, Senator Collins of Maine, and Senator Paul of Kentucky joined all Democrats in voting to defend Congress’ proper oversight role for nuclear weapons.
It was an extraordinarily rare act for these senators to defy their party’s leaders and oppose them on a roll-call vote. Their voters need to hear how grateful they are.
Unfortunately, parliamentary tactics in the end killed the amendment anyway. Congress now stands poised to abandon its long-standing role over whether to build this class of “low-yield,” and supposedly more usable, nuclear weapons.
But following on the heels of a House vote in which nearly all Democrats voted to slow the rush to build this new warhead, we can build on this foundation of political opposition against future proposals to expand the U.S. nuclear arsenal. We still expect the Trump administration to push for expansion in the future.