The United States does not need intercontinental ballistic missiles to prevent a nuclear attack on its territory, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) said in a hearing here Wednesday — but a couple rank-and-file Democrats disagreed.
“The problem with them is that they’re identifiable targets,” Smith said of ICBMs from the dais. “And also, I don’t think they’re necessary for deterrence because of the submarines we have.”
Since the November midterm elections that put his party back in control of the House, Smith has said he wants to reduce spending on nuclear arsenal modernization and maintenance. He has also said the U.S. is considering buying too many intercontinental ballistic missiles under the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) acquisition program. But Wednesday was the first time Smith said in his official capacity that land-based, long-range missiles are not indispensable to U.S. national security.
No committee Republicans agreed with that idea, and even two members of Smith’s own caucus spoke up in support of the 400 deployed Minuteman III missiles set to be replaced by GBSD starting in the 2020s.
“I think the United States should be committed to maintaining and modernizing all three legs of the nuclear triad, and continue to provide an effective and modernized nuclear umbrella for both protection of ourselves and our allies,” Rep. Elaine Luria (D-Va.) said. Luria, a Navy veteran, represents Norfolk, Va., the site of the nation’s largest naval base.
Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.) could not quite grasp how the U.S. could prevent an attack on its own intercontinental ballistic missiles if Congress ordered a reduction in their numbers, or forced the White House and the Pentagon into a no-first-use of nuclear weapons pledge.
“The point of having them [intercontinental ballistic missiles] is that it deters an attack, because they are how we respond,” Moulton said. Moulton also wondered aloud how the U.S., absent a first-use option, could “deter a pre-emptive attack from an adversary that has a policy of being open to first use.”
Since before he got the Armed Services gavel, Smith has been building a case for paring back the 30-year, $1 trillion nuclear modernization and maintenance program set in place by the Obama administration in 2016. When the committee publishes its version of the annual National Defense Authorization Act, Smith will reveal publicly exactly what cuts he has in mind.
Last year, the House Armed Services Committee released its first draft of the annual defense policy bill around May.
The Senate Armed Services Committee, still controlled by the GOP, fully supports the current modernization plan, which the Obama administration backed to secure Senate concurrence with the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty that limits the U.S. and Russia to 1,500 deployed strategic warheads until at least 2021.
Meanwhile, Smith promised there would be another nuclear policy hearing in the House soon, but he did not say exactly when. He did say Air Force Gen. John Hyten, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, was scheduled to testify.