WASHINGTON ― Nuclear modernization opponents and defenders are gearing up to fight again over the next-generation intercontinental ballistic missile and other efforts.
Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif., and a skeptic of nuclear spending on the House Armed Services Committee, confirmed he plans to offer nuclear-themed amendments when the annual defense bill receives House floor consideration later this month. One aims to pause the Air Force’s nascent Ground Based Strategic Deterrent in favor of maintaining the missile it would replace, the Minuteman III; another would zero out funds for the GBSD’s warhead, the W87-1.
“The bottom line is that we could pause the entire GBSD program and push forward into the future a $100 billion expense,” Garamendi, who chairs the House Armed Services readiness subcommittee, told Defense News.
With the Biden administration’s Nuclear Posture Review due early next year, Garamendi said the amendments are part of his “strategy to raise the issues, to gather the data, test the arguments against the opposition ... and create an occasional success.”
“The amendments signal to the administration there is a level of support and concern about each of these nuclear issues,” he added.
For the land-based missile, the stakes are high for Northrop Grumman, which received a $13.3 billion contract last year to develop GBSD. Last month, Northrop executives cut the ribbon on a $1.4 billion facility in Colorado Springs dedicated to GBSD and other strategic weapons programs.
Northrop CEO Kathy Warden expressed confidence in the program during a July 29 earnings call, saying the program would continue to fuel the company’s space segment and “continue to grow into next year and 2023. So it has a long ramp, if you will.”
For the W87-1, whose plutonium cores, or pits, are to be produced in part by the Savannah River Plutonium Processing Facility in South Carolina, at stake are jobs and billions of federal dollars to upgrade buildings or construct new factories. It’s all intertwined with shaky plans launched by the Trump administration to have Savannah River and Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico produce a combined 80 pits per year by 2030.
The obstacles for Garamendi and likeminded Democrats are not only Republicans but centrist Democrats who have previously opposed plans to derail GBSD. Republicans renewed their defense of the program and the Savannah River site when Garamendi targeted them with amendments during HASC’s markup of the defense authorization bill.
Skeptics have argued modernization plans are dangerously escalatory, exceed what’s necessary for a credible nuclear deterrent and waste money that would be better spent on domestic programs. Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., and Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., proposed a bill earlier this year to divert $1 billion from the GBSD program to fight the coronavirus.
Garamendi likes to point to the parochial politics in play, knocking GBSD as perhaps “the biggest jobs program in Wyoming” (one of the states that hosts missile fields) and the Savannah River site as “the permanent jobs program for South Carolina.”
He argued Los Alamos alone could produce the needed pits for GBSD and that the $11 billion cost to convert Savannah River into a pit plant is a waste.
Modernization’s supporters are likely to highlight to the Defense Department’s projection that extending the Minuteman III through 2075 would cost $38 billion more than developing the GBSD. Those supporters will also likely cite reports that China is expanding its own nuclear arsenal. Additionally, the proposed budget from the Biden administration itself fully funds an upgrade.
The latter group is already gathering ammunition for a possible floor fight to argue GBSD should continue apace. Reps. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., and Mike Turner, R-Ohio, together elicited a letter from the National Nuclear Security Administration affirming that even though Savannah River is five years off schedule, it won’t harm W87-1 production for the GBSD.
NNSA chief Jill Hruby said in the Aug. 25 letter that it’s “still achievable” for Los Alamos to make 30 pits per year by 2026 ― a “considerable time margin” before the first W87-1 is due to be produced in 2030. To boot, GBSD will initially use W87-0 warheads recycled from the 50-year-old Minuteman III.
“However, it is acknowledged that this approach does carry risk in that any currently unanticipated, long-term disruptions to manufacturing at [Los Alamos] would impact W87-1 deliveries until the second pit manufacturing capability at the Savannah River Site becomes available,” Hruby’s letter read.
Republicans are banking on getting Democratic support of the sort that’s materialized in the past. Last year in committee, Khanna’s proposal to slash funding for GBSD was defeated in a bipartisan 44-12 vote. And this year, Rep. Joe Wilson, who represents the Savannah River site’s home district, pointed to the site’s backing from neighboring Rep. Jim Clyburn, who is the House’s No. 3 Democrat.
“I’m really grateful that I actually represent the Savannah River site along with my colleague Congressman Jim Clyburn, who was a strong supporter of plutonium production at the Savannah River site,” Wilson said during a debate with Garamendi at the HASC markup.
“The two-site solution for plutonium pit production has had bipartisan support,” Wilson added. “Nuclear modernization has been supported across the last three administrations, including the Biden administration, and the prior two. Not a single Biden administration official has come out against the two-sites for plutonium pit production.”
Republicans — who are currently waging a fight to regain control of the House — see Garamendi’s potential amendments as an opening to portray Democrats in Republican-leaning districts as weak on China, a Republican staffer said, adding: “He’s putting many of his caucus in a bad spot.”
For his part, Garamendi acknowledged the Democrat-run Rules Committee, which is set to screen proposed amendments to the defense bill later this month, might seek to avoid the tricky politics involved and end up blocking his from floor consideration.
“Of course that’s a possibility. In fact, it’s a probability,” Garamendi said. “I’m in the process of trying to educate as many members of Congress as I possibly can about the nuclear arms that we are pursuing at a cost of at least $200 billion a year, and it’s extraordinarily dangerous.”
Assuming full-chamber passage later this month, the defense authorization bill will head to negotiations with the Senate. That work typically takes place during the congressional summer recess, but the administration’s late submission of its federal budget proposal pushed it back several months.
The authorization bill has managed to withstand partisan infighting and pass out of Congress annually for more than five decades. Extending that streak this year will require a legislative rush to craft a final bill sometime this fall, alongside other nonmilitary budget and policy priorities.
Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.