Senate Dems Press Biden Admin To Shrink Nuclear Weapons Arsenal

Lawmakers propose funding cuts, keeping Vietnam-era missile program

Sen. Jeff Merkley (D., Ore.) / Getty Images
July 9, 2021

Senate Democrats are pressuring the Biden administration to cut construction of a critical missile program even as China and Russia drastically increase their firepower, according to a letter obtained by the Washington Free Beacon.

Sens. Jeff Merkley (D., Ore.) and Elizabeth Warren (D., Mass.), the authors of the letter, are urging national security adviser Jake Sullivan to alter the administration's stance on nuclear weapons in the 2022 defense budget. The letter comes as Democrats strive to shutter the advanced nuclear program in favor of technology that was first tested by the Lyndon B. Johnson administration. The senators' campaign puts them at odds with the Biden administration's senior Pentagon officials, who have expressed support for nuclear modernization. The lawmakers' direct appeal to the National Security Council presents a litmus test for where the White House stands on the vital issue.

"We write to express concern regarding [the] President's FY22 budget requests for nuclear weapon modernization," Merkley and Warren wrote. "The high funding levels suggest that the Biden administration embraces its predecessor's reckless mission to build new nuclear weapons. ... We believe that the Trump-era nuclear buildup must be halted."

Even as the senators take aim at efforts to overhaul the aging Minuteman III program, which is the United States' only ground-based nuclear missile, President Joe Biden's Pentagon brass have voiced support for nuclear modernization efforts. Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks, who oversees the nuclear portfolio, told lawmakers in February that modernization plans must be driven by strategy, not ideology or budgets, and that ground-based nuclear missiles are part of the "bedrock" of America's missile defense. Internal budget memos from the Biden Pentagon show nuclear modernization programs are a "number one priority" for the Department of Defense.

Military officials say cuts to the modernization program would prove financially disastrous and risky to U.S. national security. Air Force Global Strike Command chief Timothy Ray said in May an extension of the older Minuteman program would cost taxpayers $38 billion more than the planned upgrade. An aging nuclear arsenal also endangers U.S. national defense as China covertly builds more than 100 missile silos in its desert and Russia develops exotic nuclear missiles.

Sen. Jon Tester (D., Mont.), the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, told the Free Beacon he will push on with efforts to modernize the U.S. nuclear arsenal, even as his Democratic colleagues do otherwise.

"America's ICBM fleet remains a critical cornerstone of our nuclear triad, providing a widely dispersed target set that complicates any plans by our adversaries—like China and Russia—to threaten the United States," Tester said. "I will continue to prioritize ongoing nuclear modernization efforts, including the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent, that are essential to our national security."

Merkley and Warren are recruiting other liberal Democrats to create a groundswell of opposition. They sent the letter to Sens. Ed Markey (Mass.), Chris Van Hollen (Md.), and more than 10 House Democrats in a bid to push back on the Biden administration.

Merkley, Warren, Markey, and Van Hollen did not return requests for comment.

Merkley and Warren's campaign could run into a bipartisan roadblock. The chairmen of the Armed Services Committees in both chambers—Sen. Jack Reed (D., R.I.) and Rep. Adam Smith (D., Wash.)—have both committed to funding modernization in the 2022 budget. Sen. John Hoeven (R., N.D.) hammered any attempt to cut funding for upgrading land-based nuclear weapons in a statement to the Free Beacon.

"I am working to ensure that nuclear modernization stays on schedule," Hoeven said. "I would be concerned about any attempt to pre-judge the outcome of that review because it is vital that nuclear modernization, including the development of a new ICBM, stays on schedule."

U.S. adversaries are building up their own nuclear arsenals at an alarming pace. Satellite images released in June show the construction of more than 100 nuclear silos in the Chinese desert. Strategic Command chief Charles Richard said in October 2020 that Russian and Chinese nuclear buildup should force a rethinking of America's plans to upgrade its weapons. A Pentagon memo released in July warned of an increased risk of nuclear conflict due to the buildup of arms by U.S. adversaries.

For Patty-Jane Geller, a missile defense policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, the campaign to cut U.S. missiles is "playing a dangerous game with national security."

"Extending Minuteman III would leave the U.S. with a less capable weapon at a time when threats from Russia and China are advancing," Geller said. "The Minuteman III is over 50 years old and will become less credible in the eyes of adversaries as it continues to age. Attempts to further study Minuteman III are attempts to unilaterally disarm, a move that would feed right into the hands of China and Russia and weaken any U.S. negotiating stance."

The Pentagon will begin a review of its nuclear posture next week.