The U.S. should modernize its nuclear forces whether it can secure arms control agreements with Russia or not, the chair of the House Armed Services Committee said here Tuesday at a major nuclear policy conference.
Waiting to finalize an arms control agreement before modernizing forces is “like giving foreign powers veto control over your national security,” Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) said in response to an audience question here at the 2019 Carnegie Nuclear Policy Conference. “[T]hat would not be a smart thing to do.”
Smith got control of the House Armed Services Committee in January after Democrats took control of the chamber in the November midterm elections. The committee will write its first draft of the annual National Defense Authorization Act with fewer than two years left for the Trump administration to decide whether it will extend the landmark New Strategic Arms Treaty (Start) with Russia into 2026.
Current and former government officials, military and civilian, have praised New Start in congressional testimony this year, telling members of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees that the treaty helps stabilize military and political relations between the world’s two greatest nuclear powers.
However, only the President of the U.S. and the leader of the Russian federation may extend the treaty. That means the Democrat-run House and GOP controlled Senate have no legal role in the process and can only use the power of the purse to persuade President Trump to pick up his option on the treaty.
That could mean threatening to slash funding for nuclear modernization programs such as Ground Based Strategic Deterrent intercontinental ballistic missiles, Long Range Standoff weapon cruise missiles, and Columbia-class ballistic missile submarines.
Smith on Tuesday doubled down on his position that the U.S. could slash its intercontinental ballistic missile fleet, and that it should eliminate a planned low-yield, submarine-launched nuclear missile set to be delivered to the Navy by September.
Smith’s counterpart in the upper chamber, Senate Armed Services Committee Chair James Inhofe (R-Okla.), opposes any cuts to the nuclear triad of intercontinental ballistic missiles, nuclear-armed aircraft, and ballistic missile submarines.
New Start will expire in 2021, unless the U.S. and Russian leaders extend it. The treaty limits both nations to 1,500 deployed strategic warheads. That includes only nukes carried on intercontinental ballistic missiles, bombers, and ballistic missile submarines. After the Senate approved the treaty in 2010, the Obama administration in 2016 agreed to a 30-year, $1 trillion nuclear modernization and maintenance program.
There is a possibility Trump will lose the 2020 presidential election and be replaced by a chief executive whose administration is willing to extend New Start, but Russia appears willing to negotiate only with Trump. On Monday Anatoly Antonov, Russian ambassador to the U.S., said that a potential Trump successor would come into office too close to the New Start expiration deadline, and that Moscow wants to begin a dialog with Washington sooner.
The Trump administration has not said whether it will extend or abandon New Start, which absent an extension expires Feb. 5, 2021.
While Smith here said arms control agreements are not necessary for nuclear modernization, he did say such agreements help prevent “a nuclear catastrophe.” In response to another audience question, Smith said he would like to eliminate a provision of U.S. law, passed in 2017 after Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine, that limits cooperation between the U.S. and Russian military.
The 2019 National Defense Authorization Act loosened that limitation to allow for “bilateral military-to-military dialogue between the United States and the Russian Federation for the purpose of reducing the risk of conflict.”
The House Armed Services Committee traditionally writes the first draft of the annual, must-pass National Defense Authorization Act that sets policy and funding limits for defense programs, including nuclear weapons programs run by the Pentagon and the Department of Energy: the civilian agency that owns and maintains U.S. nuclear warheads and bombs.
Last year, the House Armed Services Committee published first drafts of the National Defense Authorization Act around May.