The Biden administration will start its nuclear posture review soon and work on it into the fall, there’s no new Minuteman III life-extension study at the Pentagon and bad welds on some missile tubes won’t delay delivery of the first Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine, witnesses testified late Wednesday before a Senate Armed Services panel.
At the outset of the Nuclear Posture Review, the administration is weighing whether it can “reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy,” Leonor Tomero, deputy assistant secretary of defense for nuclear and missile defense policy, said in prepared remarks to the Senate Armed Services Strategic Forces subcommittee.
Tomero, a longtime former Democratic staffer for the House Armed Services Committee who joined the Biden administration in January, made similar remarks recently to the Japanese newspaper, the Asahi Shimbun — remarks that, in the words of Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), caused “a disturbance in the force.”
King, who caucuses with Democrats and chairs the Strategic Forces subcommittee, said Tomero caused some “furor” with her comments to the Shimbun, which reported that the Biden administration was examining cost savings within ongoing U.S. nuclear modernization programs at the Department of Defense and Department of Energy.
“The interview with a Japanese newspaper was heavily editorialized,” Tomero said. “I did not talk about reductions or express concerns about costs,” said Tomero, who the Shimbun accurately quoted as saying that several nuclear modernization programs “are very costly.”
That was said as “a statement of fact, not as a concern,” Tomero testified.
In 2019, one of Tomero’s final years on the House Armed Services Committee, lower-chamber lawmakers including Committee chair Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) pushed hard to slow down the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) intercontinental ballistic missile procurement. The weapon is supposed to replace Minuteman III missiles starting in 2030 or so. Smith has said over and over again that he remains open to GBSD alternatives, even though members of his own caucus, by-and-large, are not.
The House Appropriations Defense subcommittee gave the idea of another Minuteman III life-extension-and-fleet-reduction some airtime earlier this year, when an analyst from the Carnegie Institute for International Peace testified in one of the first fiscal year 2022 nuclear-weapons budget hearings of the season.
Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.), the ranking member of the Strategic Forces subcommittee, opposes a GBSD slowdown as much as anyone on Capitol Hill. In Thursday’s hearing, she was on the hunt for signs that the Biden administration was internally pushing for another Minuteman III life-extension.
On Wednesday, Fischer appeared to be under the impression that Tomero’s office had asked the Pentagon’s Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation office, which does program-independent cost reviews, to spin up a new study about pressing the 1960s-vintage Minuteman III into a few more years of service.
Tomero said that wasn’t exactly so.
“No new studies are on the way,” Tomero told Fischer, although it is true that the Office of Nuclear And Missile Defense Policy asked for the Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation office’s help in parsing some of the numerous Minuteman III life-extension studies that have already been done.
Meanwhile on Wednesday, Vice Adm. Johnny Wolf, the Navy’s director of strategic systems programs, said that some bad welds on common missile compartment tubes for future Columbia-class ballistic missile submarines should not delay the scheduled delivery of the first nuclear-armed boat in 2033 or so.
“We did lose some schedule margin,” Wolf told the subcommittee Wednesday, but the Navy “got to the root cause of that [and] have it under control.” BWX Technologies [BWXT], Lynchburg, Va., was responsible for 12 bad welds on the tubes, all of which the company has since repaired.