WASHINGTON — Following the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, which called for long-term investment in modernizing America’s nuclear arsenal, Congress seemed to strike a general consensus on nukes: New investments in weapons would go hand in hand with arms reduction efforts such as the New START treaty.
It wasn’t perfect, and not everyone was on board. But on the whole, the balance allowed the investments in new bombers, nuclear warheads, long-range missiles and intercontinental ballistic missiles to go through with little challenge from Democrats, while ensuring New START would receive support from Republicans.
Years later, the landscape looks very different, which could have major consequences as the Trump administration attempts to push its own priorities from the Nuclear Posture Review through a Democratic-controlled House.
“That consensus is fragile, and I think it’s fraying a little bit. It’s fraying on Capitol Hill,” Christopher Hanson, a staffer with the Democratic minority on the Senate Appropriations Committee’s energy and water development panel, said Feb. 12 at the annual Nuclear Deterrence Summit. That subcommittee oversees the funding of the nuclear weapons enterprise.
“I’m not sure that people still understand what the nuclear deterrent is,” he added. “There’s been a lot of turnover on Capitol Hill the last 10 years. A lot of turnover in this town.”
Hanson’s colleague from the Republican majority staff, Adam DeMella, concurred that the consensus seems to be breaking. DeMella seemed to point to a lack of engagement from the current administration to Congress on these issues as part of the problem.
“If folks walk away from New START without building a consensus first, without communicating ... those are the kind of things that ramp down the consensus,” he said. “When folks just make an edict and say, 'This is what we’re doing, this is the plan’ ... there has to be a partnership.
“Without consensus, it’s really hard to do things, and its even harder to do things that are big. And everything nuclear is big because it’s expensive.”
The nuclear consensus was rocked early in the Trump administration, with President Donald Trump declaring after less than a month in office that the agreement was “a one-sided deal" and a “bad deal,” and pledged that “if countries are going to have nukes, we’re going to be at the top of the pack.”
The situation only got rockier with the January 2018 release of the Nuclear Posture Review, which called for the creation of two new nuclear capabilities — a low-yield warhead for submarine-launched ballistic missiles and a submarine-launched nuclear cruise missile — that Democrats quickly denounced as the start of a new arms race.
The situation doesn’t appear to have improved for advocates of nuclear spending in the wake of November’s elections, which saw Democrats take the House and several veteran members of the Senate Armed Services Committee be replaced.
John Harvey, who as principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for nuclear, chemical and biological defense programs from 2009-2013 was one of the key authors of the 2010 NPR, said at the summit that he sees little change in the SASC’s stance toward modernization, as new members are largely in favor of the development plan.
The House, however, is a wild card. On the one hand, House Armed Services Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash., has been vocal about his desire to cut nuclear programs. On the other, Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., who runs the subcommittee that oversees strategic weapons, supports nuclear modernization.
Whether Smith lets Cooper handle the details in his committee or even brings nukes into the broader HASC discussion will matter greatly, Harvey predicted.
There’s a lot of moving parts; or as DeMella put it: Thanks to the split Congress, the delayed budget and the upcoming threat over budget caps returning, “this year’s gonna be, again, interesting and weird.”
For his part, Harvey thinks there are three steps the administration can take to build support for the nuclear arsenal.
“You should make clear that extending New START and continued Democrat support for modernization are a package. [Tell them] you can’t have one without the other,” Harvey said. Second, renew efforts to engage Russia on arms control initiatives that are in America’s security interests, including attempts to reduce “the large disparity of U.S. and Russian nonstrategic nuclear weapons and more productive dialogue on strategic stability.”
Such efforts might prove to be a dead end, as they have in the past, but Harvey argued that “such efforts, even if unrealized, could help ease the perception that Mr. Trump and his team are hostile to arms control and thereby strengthen bipartisan support for modernization.”
Lastly, Harvey called for increased dialogue about Russian behavior since the annexation of Crimea. “When you hear the debate on nuclear forces, very little do you hear from those who think we should do more in constraining modernization talk about the Russia problem,” he said.
DeMella and Hanson agreed that education on nuclear issues is key, both on the Hill and in the public.
“The more information a person gets, the more likely they are to understand” nuclear issues, he said. “We’re not doing the work we need to do to make sure people understand how the pieces of the puzzle fit together so that they don’t say things they later have a hard time backing off.”
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.