On Tuesday, another Democratic lawmaker called for President-elect Joe Biden to publish what would be the third U.S. nuclear posture review in as many administrations — a potential step toward altering the course of the nuclear modernization regimen that started in 2016.
“They’ll have to do a top-to-bottom review of these programs and think about them in the context both of the overall vision of the management of nuclear weapons on our planet, but also in terms of the U.S. budget, which will be stretched, for sure,” Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) said Tuesday during the Arms Control Associations’ virtual annual meeting.
Merkley serves on the Senate Appropriations, Environment and Public Works and Foreign Relations committees, and each has some degree of influence on nuclear policy. Though outspoken about his work on the Foreign Relations committee, Merkley is closest to the Department of Energy, and its civilian nuclear weapons programs, as a member of the Appropriations energy and water subcommittee.
Speaking to the D.C.-based, disarmament-advocating Arms Control Association, Merkley mentioned every major Department of Energy and Pentagon nuclear modernization program if not by name, then by inference: the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent intercontinental ballistic missiles slated to replace Minuteman III silo-based missiles starting in 2030 or so; the Long Range Standoff weapon cruise missile, also slated for rollout around 2030; the Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine expected to start patrols in the early 2030s; the B-21 stealth bomber that later this century is supposed to carry every type of air-launched weapon in the U.S. arsenal.
“And then a host of programs related to warheads, including ones that raise significant issues like a [W76-2] submarine-launched ballistic missile warhead at a much lower yield that certainly is worthy of discussion and in the context of the risk it creates and impacts upon deterrence,” Merkley said. “[W]e have also the expanded plutonium pit program,” he added, casting the spotlight on plans to make new fissile warhead-triggers for intercontinental ballistic missile warheads at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in a few years.
Until the Obama and Trump administrations went back-to-back, nuclear posture reviews were somewhat infrequent. Except for Trump, and perhaps now Biden, such documents were not necessarily one of the first cudgels a newly elected president reached for to leave a mark on nuclear-weapons policy.
But Democrats are keen to have a new nuclear posture review, and Merkely is the third in as many weeks to bang the drum. Two weeks ago, at another widely attended meeting of disarmament advocates, Merkley’s colleague Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), perhaps the Senate’s biggest nuclear dove, also called for a Biden nuclear posture review.
“President Biden’s nuclear posture review, which I urge him to begin immediately, can make it clear that the sole purpose of nuclear weapons is deterrence and not warfighting,” Markey said at a virtual meeting of the overtly anti-nuclear Ploughshares Fund. “There is no such thing as a nuclear war which is limited. Like Pringles, once you pop, you cannot stop. That’s just the reality of nuclear weapons.”
At the same Ploughshares meeting, Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), chair of the House Armed Services Committee, said Biden had “committed” to another nuclear posture review, which Smith called a “key, key document” that could lead to “a nuclear deterrent policy that has a lot fewer nuclear weapons.”