Banning a low-yield, submarine-launched ballistic-missile warhead could stop “some nitwit at the Pentagon” from attempting to fight a nuclear war, Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), chair of the House Armed Services Committee, said Monday at a Washington nonprofit.
It remains unclear how far Smith is willing to go to get the low-yield warhead, dubbed the W76-2, banned. The Smith-authored draft National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) due for a committee vote Wednesday would not authorize the roughly $19.5 million the Navy requested to deploy the weapon, which the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) has already started building.
NNSA has $65 million in 2019 funding for the low-yield submarine-launched weapon W76-2, which the agency created by modifying the high-yield W76-1. The civilian nuclear weapon steward has said it will deliver the first of these weapon to the Navy by Sept. 30.
Given that the Senate Armed Services Committee has already approved an NDAA that authorizes all requested DoD and DoE nuclear weapon spending — and assuming the full House approves Smith’s 2020 NDAA with the W76-2 ban intact — Smith will have to take his proposed ban before a conference committee filled with Senators who W76-2.
Yet Smith’s rhetoric about the weapon has mostly not changed since he condemned it last year during the annual NDAA debate in a scathing floor speech.
He described W76-2 then as a “bad idea” that lowered the threshold of nuclear use, and said that the only credible way to stop an adversary from using a low-yield nuclear weapon is to make that adversary believe that the price for doing so is a disproportionate, high-yield retaliatory strike by the U.S.
Smith did not buy then the Trump administration’s contention that the very existence of a low-yield nuclear weapon, that could shot promptly at an adversary, would check that adversary from using a low-yield weapon of their own to quickly escalate and win a conventional conflict.
On Monday, the Armed Services chair held that line.
“Do not launch a single solitary nuclear weapon because it inevitably leads to a catastrophic result,” Smith said.