The chair of the House Armed Services Committee had bitter medicine in a big spoon for disarmament advocates Wednesday: getting rid of nuclear weapons is a losing message that may have cost Democrats a chance to slow down procurement of next-generation, nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles.

“We’re losing this argument because we lost seats in the House,” Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) told a webcast meeting of the Ploughshares Fund, a D.C.-based disarmament group Smith regularly joins for public forums. “‘We gotta get rid of nuclear weapons’ is not a winning message.”

Democrats may have won the White House on Nov. 3, Smith said, but they failed to capture the Senate — a razor-thin margin is up for grabs in January’s Georgia Senate run-offs — and clung to their House majority while losing 12 seats. 

While a united government might have given Democrats a path to slow down the $13-billion Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) contract the Air Force awarded to Northrop Grumman [NOC] this year to build the first of 400 new intercontinental ballistic missiles, a divided Congress basically puts that goal out of reach, Smith said.

“To strike down the GBSD is going to be a tough battle to win in the environment we’re in right now, given where people are at,” said Smith. “I know what the Republicans will do, I know the approach they will take, and I’m not optimistic about how that battle comes out in those districts we need to win.”

GBSD will begin replacing 400 Boeing [BA]-built Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles around 2030. The new missiles will carry W87-0 and, eventually, W87-1 warheads provided by the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration. W87-1 will be a newly manufacturing copy of the existing W87, which now tip some Minuteman III missiles, but with a brand new NNSA-furnished plutonium pit.

The NNSA is in the middle of building a new pit-production complex that would cast warhead cores for substantially the rest of the 21st century, during which some existing pits will become too old to be reliable, the agency has said.

In the nearer term, Smith said GBSD could be paused and Minuteman III could be extended “for another 30 or 40 years” if NNSA and the Pentagon refurbish existing pits and missiles. 

Smith tried to get buy-in for that idea last year in the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act, but the GOP-controlled Senate rolled Democrats in conference negotiations and ensured that the bill reached President Trump’s desk with the requested funding for GBSD, and now directive to seriously pursue another Minuteman III extension.

“I support no first use, I support revisiting the triad, I support reducing the number of nuclear weapons and the amount of spending on it,” Smith said, running off a list of nuclear-minimalist positions for the virtual audience of passionate disarmament faithfuls. “To build the support for those positions, I really urge everyone to take a serious look at how do we persuade the people we need to persuade.”