House Democrats Seek to Kill Small Nuclear Warhead

Military says low-yield weapon needed to deter China, Russia

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Anti-nuclear Democrats on the House Armed Services Committee are attempting to kill the Trump administration's use of small nuclear warheads on missiles in proposed legislative restrictions this week.

The committee's strategic forces subcommittee on Monday released its legislative language proposed by the chairman, Rep. Jim Cooper (D., Tenn.), for the nuclear arms portion of the fiscal 2020 defense authorization bill. The legislation would prohibit the Pentagon from using any funds to produce the W76-2 low-yield missile warhead.

The chairman's mark will be debated and voted on beginning Tuesday and also contains other provisions that would limit the administration's plan to modernize the aging U.S. nuclear arsenal.

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It is not clear whether the restrictive language on the converted warhead will be accepted or whether the restriction would survive a future House-Senate conference on the final legislation where differences between Democrats and Republicans on the two versions authorization bill are worked out. Senate Republicans, the majority party, are expected to oppose the warhead curbs.

Subcommittee Democrats also are seeking to prevent development of a road-mobile variant for a future long-range strategic missile, and want to cut the requirement for producing 80 plutonium pits a year for weapons to 30 per year. The Democratic mark also seeks to prevent the Navy from developing technology for hypersonic missiles as part of the new prompt global strike plan—the plan for capabilities for the military to hit any target on earth in 15 minutes or less.

The nuclear curbs in the subcommittee chairman's mark drew harsh criticism from two Republicans. "This is a partisan and irresponsible subcommittee mark that makes us less safe, hinders our ability to defend ourselves, weakens our ability to deter our adversaries, and therefore enables them to challenge us," Rep. Mac Thornberry (R., Texas), the ranking member of the committee, and Rep. Mike Turner (R., Ohio), ranking member of the subcommittee, said in a statement.

"This subcommittee mark is a significant departure from the Armed Services Committee’s tradition of bipartisanship," they said. "We hope that the full committee markup works in a continued bipartisan basis to support our men and women of the armed forces. It is clear that this subcommittee markup does not meet that standard."

A U.S. official said the Democrats know that all the needed W76s have been converted already. The legislative restrictions are part of a bid by anti-nuclear Democrats to prevent them from being deployed.

The low-yield weapon is made by converting the W76 by altering its internal configuration by reducing the mechanism that boosts the yield, usually through the use of tritium gas. The yield is then reduced from around 100 kilotons to between 5 and 10 kilotons. A kiloton is the equivalent of 1,000 tons of TNT.

In February 2018, then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis defended plans to deploy small nuclear weapons on two missiles as needed for countering similar threats posed by Russian and Chinese forces.

Plans for the new small warheads were announced in the Pentagon's most recent Nuclear Posture Review made public last year. The review called for modifying a small number of submarine-launched nuclear ballistic missiles with low-yield warheads.

The military also plans to re-deploy sea-based nuclear cruise missiles with small warheads. Sea-based nuclear weapons were deactivated in the 1990s.

Mattis, in testimony to the House Armed Services Committee, denied assertions by anti-nuclear advocates that deploying low-yield warhead missiles would lower the threshold for using nuclear arms in a conflict. "I don't believe it lowers the threshold at all," he said.

The military wants small warhead missiles in the arsenal to convince adversaries like China and Russia that the U.S. nuclear deterrent is capable of dissuading the use of low-yield arms.

"It's to make certain that no one thinks that they could use a low-yield weapon and put us in a position where we could only respond with a high-yield weapon, with the supposition that maybe we would not," Mattis said in February 2018.

Energy Secretary Rick Perry disclosed in Senate testimony in March that the first converted W76-2 warhead modification was completed in February.

"This low-yield option is a measured way to reinforce deterrence in the face of Russia’s large, diverse, and modern stockpile of non-strategic nuclear weapons, which facilitate Moscow’s mistaken belief that limited nuclear first-use, potentially including low-yield weapons, can provide Russia a coercive advantage in crises and at lower levels of conflict," Mr. Perry said in prepared testimony.

The new warhead is being opposed by liberal Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D., Wash.), an anti-nuclear weapons advocate. "The risk is a miscalculation that a low-yield nuclear weapon enables you to basically launch a nuclear weapon without leading to an all-out nuclear war," Smith said at a forum sponsored by the Carnegie Endowment in April. "Low yield doesn’t make any sense. A nuclear weapon is a nuclear weapon."

Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Paul Selva testified with Mattis last year that the low-yield nuclear missile will enhance deterrence "by ensuring no adversary under any circumstances can perceive an advantage through limited nuclear escalation or other strategic attack."

"Fielding these capabilities will not lower the threshold at which the U.S. would employ nuclear weapons," Selva said. "Rather, it will raise the nuclear threshold of potential adversaries, making nuclear weapons employment less likely."

The United States is spending between $1.2 trillion and $1.5 trillion over the next 30 years to modernize nuclear forces, including new missile submarines, a new strategic bomber and new ground-based ICBMs.

Currently, the sole low-yield weapon is the B61 gravity bomb that is dropped from aircraft and would not survive delivery through increasingly sophisticated enemy air defenses.