If Joe Biden wins the White House in the Nov. 3 election, his administration will consider backing off the U.S. nuclear buildup set in place by the Obama administration in 2016, the chair of the House Armed Services Committee predicted Thursday.
“China’s philosophy has been very simple: we’re going to build a reliable nuclear arsenal that is sufficient to inflict so much pain on any adversary that they will not dare pose an existential threat to us,” Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash), chair of the House Armed Services Committee, said. “I think that’s a pretty sound approach. It’s also a heck of a lot cheaper than imagining that you have to build enough weapons to win a nuclear conflict. And I’m confident that the Biden administration, if it comes, is going to feel this way.”
Smith spoke in a virtual fireside chat webcasted by the left-center Washington-based think tank, the Center for a New American Security. The group produced a few senior Pentagon officials for the Obama administration.
The spear-tip of Smith’s approach, called anti-nuclear by some critics to his ideological right — and not always supported by every member of his own party — is to trim the U.S. intercontinental ballistic missile fleet.
That could put Northrop Grumman’s [NOC] $13-billion award to build Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) missiles on the hot seat after inauguration day, plus shrink the Department of Energy’s buildout of plutonium facilities that provide the cores of GBSD warheads, and which would cost about $30 billion to construct and operate for the next several decades.
“I frankly think that our [intercontinental ballistic missile] fleet right now is driven as much by politics as it is by a policy necessity,” Smith said Thursday. “There are certain states in the union that apparently are fond of being a nuclear target. And you know, it’s part of their economy, it’s what they do.”
In 2019, the first chance Democrats had to write a National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) since taking back the House after years in the minority, most Democratic members of the House Armed Services Committee approved an NDAA that would have slowed the GBSD program and limited the Department of Energy’s pit complex to one state instead of the planned two.
Republicans in the Senate rolled that bill in negotiations, pushing through full funding for the GBSD fleet and the pits.
Smith didn’t even try for such bold action in this year’s NDAA debate, though he did allow the committee to vote on an amendment that would have stripped away much of GBSD’s requested funding. That election-year vote failed 38-19, with every Republican and 12 Democrats voting no. Instead, GBSD was authorized for about $1 billion for fiscal year 2021, as requested. Smith would have had to flip 11 of those “no” Democrats in the Committee to push the amendment through.
“I have not definitively said ‘we don’t need a [nuclear] triad anymore,’ nor am I in the camp that [says] we absolutely have to have one and it’s not even worth talking about,” Smith said. “It’s worth talking about. It’s worth having the debate to envision: what should our nuclear deterrence policy look like, and what do we need to build to achieve it?”