Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who this week voted against the Senate’s 2019 National Defense Authorization Act because it would authorize the Department of Energy to create a low-yield nuclear warhead, has signaled her support for a 2019 budget bill that actually funds the weapon.
However, Feinstein also wants to amend the spending bill to prohibit DoE’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) from starting development of future low-yield weapons without congressional authorization; the Senate’s just-passed 2019 National Defense Authorization Act would allow the NNSA to start initial development of other low-yield, nuclear weapons simply by requesting funds to do so. Current law requires congressional approval for any warhead work beyond early feasibility and concept studies.
The Senate on Tuesday started debating the “minibus” appropriations package that would provide a little under $15 billion for the NNSA in 2019. The chamber had not scheduled a vote on Feinstein’s amendment or the underlying bill at deadline Wednesday, but Feinstein suggested Tuesday she would not stand in the bill’s way.
“On balance, I support this bill,” Feinstein said on the Senate floor.
Despite the support, “I strongly oppose funding for this new nuclear weapon. I firmly believe we already have enough nuclear weapons,” California’s four-term, senior Senator said in her floor speech.
As part of the Nuclear Posture Review published in February, the Trump administration called on the NNSA to build a low-yield, submarine-launched ballistic-missile warhead. The House in May passed an NNSA budget that would provide the $65 million the agency sought for the weapon in 2019. The bill before the Senate would also provide $65 million.
In appropriations markups earlier this year, Feinstein said the NNSA thinks it will cost a total of $125 million over two years to produce an unspecified number of low-yield warheads.
The White House says it needs a low-yield missile option to stop Russia from using a similarly powerful weapon to end a conflict it begins, but cannot win, with conventional weapons. Feinstein was immediately critical of the strategy, arguing the current U.S. nuclear arsenal would deter Russia from using a lower-yield option.
The NNSA plans to create its low-yield, sub-launched nuclear missile by modifying an unspecified number of W76 warheads now used on the Trident II D5 missiles carried aboard Ohio-class submarines. The W76 is in the middle of a long-planned life-extension program, and the NNSA will make the low-yield modifications on the same production line used for the life extension.
Besides the immediate submarine-launched option, the White House wants the NNSA and the Pentagon to study a low-yield warhead for a future sea-launched cruise missile.