The Senate’s top nuclear-weapons authorizer pumped Air Force Gen. John Hyten during a Tuesday confirmation hearing for ammunition to use in upcoming conference negotiations with House Democrats, who want to scale back the ongoing modernization and maintenance of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.
President Trump in April nominated Hyten, commander of U.S. Strategic Command since 2016, to be the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The general in charge of U.S. nuclear forces spent much of the hearing answering questions about allegations that he sexually assaulted an officer under his command at STRATCOM.
Fischer avoided that subject. Instead, the chair of the Senate Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee used her time to enlist Hyten’s help shooting down arguments that House Democrats relied on to support modernization cuts proposed in the National Defense Authorization Act they passed on July 12.
At Fischer’s prompting, Hyten said that he did not believe that placing a low-yield nuclear warhead on submarine-launched ballistic missiles made the submarine fleet less safe, and that the current arsenal of low-yield bombs and air-launched cruise missiles are not a substitute for a faster-traveling, low-yield, sub-launched, nuclear ballistic-missile.
Also at the hearing, Hyten said that he himself came up with the idea for the low-yield warhead: a weapon called W76-2 that the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) began making in 2019 by modifying what the agency says is a “small number” of high-yield W76-1 warheads.
While helping draft the Nuclear Posture Review the Trump administration published in 2018, Hyten “made a recommendation” to place “a very small number of low-yield nuclear weapons on our submarines,” the commander told Fischer on Tuesday.
The Trump administration says the U.S. needs a low-yield nuclear weapon that can promptly strike an adversary to check that adversary from using their own low-yield nuke to quickly escalate and win a conventional conflict.
House Democrats reject that argument. Led by Armed Services Chair Adam Smith (D-Wash.), the lower chamber’s National Defense Authorization Act would ban the Navy from deploying the W76-2, which the NNSA planned to start delivering to the service by Sept. 30.
Smith and his allies claim a low-yield weapon lowers the threshold for nuclear war and would, if used, expose the submarine that launched it to a counterattack that could destroy many high-yield nuclear missiles the U.S. relies on to deter a potentially nation-destroying, nuclear first-strike on American territory.
Fischer also pressed Hyten for support about the NNSA’s plan to produce nuclear weapon cores called plutonium pits in two states. There, Hyten again obliged.
The NNSA aims to upgrade a pit plant at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and build a new pit factory in South Carolina from the remains of a canceled plutonium disposal plant at the Savannah River Site. Though its own internal studies have put long odds on hitting the target throughput, the NNSA wants these sites to produce a combined 80 pits a year by 2030, beginning with 30 a year at Los Alamos in 2026.
“I think the Department of Energy has put together the best plan we have to get to 30 by 2026 at Los Alamos and 80 by 2030 across the entire enterprise,” Hyten said, without mentioning the planned Savannah River facility by name.
Responding to questions from Fischer’s colleague, strategic forces subcommittee ranking member Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), Hyten said it would be “difficult” to keep all future pit production at Los Alamos — something Heinrich has supported.
Hyten also said his staff from U.S. Strategic Command have often visited Los Alamos to check in on the pit mission, which “I’m sure that bugs the DoE folks a little bit.”
House Democrats, in their National Defense Authorization Act and an accompanying defense appropriations bill, proposed funding in 2020 only the upgrades required to produce 30 pits a year by 2026 at Los Alamos.
The House and Senate had yet to schedule conference negotiations on the National Defense Authorization Act at deadline Tuesday for Defense Daily. The Senate, in the authorization act it passed in June, approved full funding for all Department of Energy and Department of Defense nuclear weapons modernization programs.
The Congressional Budget Office estimates the current 30-year nuclear modernization and maintenance program, started by the Obama administration and continued with minor tweaks by the Trump administration, will cost about $1 trillion. That includes NNSA work, plus the Pentagon’s development of new bomber aircraft, missiles and submarines.