Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee are calling for bolstering nuclear and conventional forces in Asia in response to China’s nuclear buildup and missile proliferation to North Korea.
Rep. Trent Franks, (R., Ariz.), introduced an amendment that was adopted last week as part of the fiscal 2013 defense authorization bill by the House Armed Services Committee.
The legislation would require the Pentagon to report to Congress on ways to strengthen U.S. and allied forces in Asia, including re-deployment of tactical nuclear arms to the region.
The legislation was approved following the April 15 disclosure during a military parade in North Korea that China had supplied six mobile long-range strategic missile launchers to the communist regime.
The measure also comes as the Pentagon is shifting forces to the Asia Pacific as U.S. involvement in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down.
The amendment states that it is the sense of Congress to support efforts by the president to reinforce U.S. and allied security, and bolster deterrence against "the illegal and increasingly belligerent actions of North Korea."
It would require studying whether to "deploy additional conventional forces of the United States and redeploy tactical nuclear weapons to the Western Pacific region."
The provision also comes as the Pentagon in November announced the opening of an office as part what defense officials say is a new Air Sea Battle Concept designed to improve cooperation between the Air Force and Navy in countering China’s high-tech weapons.
Some congressional Republicans have questioned the Pentagon’s commitment to building up air and naval forces in Asia as defense spending is being cut $487 billion over 10 years, with potentially $600 billion more in automatic cuts coming on January 1, 2013.
If passed by the full House and combined with the Senate version of the defense bill in the coming months, the legislation would require the secretary of defense to submit a report to Congress within 90 days on the deployment of additional conventional and nuclear forces in the Western Pacific.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said on Monday when asked about the amendment that "our policy remains support for a nonnuclear Korean Peninsula, so we don’t have any plans to change that policy."
"Tactical nuclear weapons, in our view, are unnecessary for the defense of South Korea," she said. "So we don’t have any plans or intention to deploy them there."
A Pentagon spokesman declined to comment.
The study is needed "to ensure the presence of a robust conventional and nuclear capability, including a forward-deployed nuclear capability, of the United States in response to the ballistic missile and nuclear weapons developments of North Korea and the other belligerent actions North Korea has made against allies of the United States," the amendment states.
The report would include assessments of any bilateral agreements, basing arrangements, and costs that would be needed for the new deployments.
During a committee markup debate on the amendment, Franks said the report was needed because North Korea has grown more belligerent in recent years, and China’s support is making the problem worse.
He noted the recent failed launch of a North Korean long-range missile.
"We in the last many years have appealed to China to help us negotiate with North Korea to bring them in line with the quest for peace in the world, and it seems like nothing we do works," Franks said.
"In fact China has now embarked on selling nuclear components to North Korea and they are not just supporting North Korea financially; they are directly supporting North Korea’s missile program," he said.
"Consequently, it has become time for us as a nation to look to our deterrent and our ability to take care of ourselves and to work with our allies to make sure we’re doing everything necessary to deter and defend ourselves against any other belligerents or future threats from North Korea."
Rep. Adam Smith (D., Wash), the ranking member of the Armed Services Committee, opposed the amendment and said reintroducing tactical nuclear arms to the region is "just completely wrong."
"If anything that will ramp up the tensions and create a greater likelihood of problems in the region, not a lesser one," Smith said.
The Obama administration is seeking to cut U.S. nuclear arms in agreements with the Russians, and has sought to engage China in strategic nuclear arms talks, but so far Beijing has rebuffed the offer of nuclear talks.
Franks responded to the Democratic opposition by stating that the measure only requires a report, not the introduction of nuclear arms.
"If China is going to be so concerned about a stronger U.S. presence in the region, it’s very simple for them to do something about it: They can stop supporting North Korea’s missile program and get tough on the Kim Jong-un administration," he said.
White House strategic arms coordinator Gary Samore said in June 2011 that the United States could re-introduce tactical nuclear weapons to South Korea if Seoul requested the weapons to deter North Korea’s growing nuclear power.
Tactical nuclear arms were withdrawn from South Korea in 1991 as part of an initiative to limit the deployment of battlefield nuclear weapons, which include artillery shells and airdropped bombs that are smaller in their explosive power than strategic nuclear arms.
A few tactical nuclear weapons remain deployed in Europe.
The U.S. deterrent "umbrella" for South Korea, Japan, and other Asian allies is primarily carried out through patrols of U.S. strategic submarines armed with nuclear-tipped missiles.
China, meanwhile, is currently engaged in a major strategic nuclear modernization program that U.S. officials say is being kept secret as part of Beijing’s strategy of not revealing its true military power.
U.S. officials said China is believed to have between 300 and 400 strategic nuclear warheads and an unknown number of tactical nuclear warheads.
However, a recent study by Georgetown University that examined the size and scope of a 3,000-mile-long series of underground nuclear tunnels and factories estimated that China’s nuclear warhead forces could be orders of magnitude larger than official U.S. intelligence estimates.