Congress may not block the Navy from deploying a low-yield nuclear warhead this year after all, House Armed Services Committee Chair Adam Smith (D-Wash.), the weapon’s No. 1 detractor in Congress, said Thursday.
“That’s going to be very, very difficult, very difficult because of the strong opposition from both the White House and the Senate,” Smith said here during a nuclear policy breakfast hosted by the Ploughshares Fund.
Since the Trump administration proposed creating it in 2018, Smith has said the low-yield, W76-2 warhead — which the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) started building this year — would destabilize international relations and increase the odds of a nuclear war. To that end, the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that Smith shepherded through the House this summer prohibits the Navy from putting the weapon aboard Ohio-class submarines.
The GOP controlled Senate, on the other hand, has produced a 2020 NDAA that would fully fund W76-2 deployment, and every other item on the Trump administration’s nuclear wishlist for the Departments of Defense and Energy.
W76-2 is a modified version of the freshly refurbished W76-1 that flies aboard Trident II-D5 missiles. Because the NNSA has already built an unspecified number of these warheads, and because the House’s NDAA would not have required the civilian agency to destroy any already built, Smith’s W76-2 prohibition would in theory have lasted only as long as the first NDAA written by a Congress that wanted the weapon deployed.
Yet after a bitter and starkly partisan debate about the weapon in the House this summer, Smith is now running cold water over the idea that the Senate and White House might brook any delay at all for W76-2.
Asked to make odds that his low-yield prohibition would survive final NDAA negotiations between the House and Senate, Smith said the chances were about as good as his hometown Seattle Mariners winning the World Series.
With the advancement of the Washington Nationals to the World Series this year, the Mariners are the only Major League Baseball team that has never played in baseball’s annual championship games.
The NDAA Smith shepherded through the House, the first of his chairmanship, includes several proposals designed to align U.S. nuclear weapons and nuclear-armed forces with Smith’s preferred policy: that nuclear weapons are solely for deterring nuclear attacks by nuclear-armed adversaries.
To that end, the House 2020 NDAA would slow development of the next-generation intercontinental ballistic missiles known as the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent — in part by slowing construction of planned NNSA plutonium processing facilities — and prohibit any nuclear first-strike by the U.S.
The Senate bill would do none of those things.
Meanwhile, Congress should still be able to unify and pass some kind of a 2020 NDAA before Sept. 30, 2020, Smith told breakfast goers here.
The alternative, which Smith is not keen on, would be passing a so-called “skinny” NDAA that would include, among other things, noncontroversial language to extend certain Pentagon legal authorities. These include the ability to spend appropriated funding, to transfer funds between programs, and to continue military operations, according to details released Thursday afternoon by Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
“I still believe that we’re going to get the bill [NDAA] done, that we’re not going to go with this smaller bill,” Smith said. “[J]ust yesterday, I really started talking with the White House about the issues that we’re still divided on, and I am confident that we can resolve this. It’s not going to be as quick as we would like, because there are a lot of controversial issues, and the government’s divided.”