The chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee praised as “excellent” the testimony of three former government officials who urged lawmakers Thursday to continue modernizing the entire nuclear triad and encourage President Trump to extend a key nuclear-arms treaty with Russia.
In a full committee hearing, the former head of U.S. strategic command testified alongside the former number-two of the Obama administration’s National Nuclear Security Administration and a retired National Security Council official from the George W. Bush administration to urge full funding for the $1-trillion nuclear modernization and maintenance program put in place by Obama in 2016.
All three also said the committee, chaired by Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), should do what it can to persuade Trump to negotiate a five-year extension, to 2026, for the the landmark New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (Start) that limits Washington and Moscow to 1,500 deployed, strategic nuclear-warheads.
“All three statements were excellent,” Inhofe said from the dais here.
Pundits and analysts in Washington see modernization and New Start — the Obama administration’s landmark, domestic nuclear achievements — as the political center of the nuclear arms debate in Congress. In embracing it, Inhofe sets himself against his counterpart in the House, Armed Services Committee Chair Adam Smith (D-Wash.), who has said the U.S. plans to buy too many new intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) as part of the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent program: the Obama-era effort to modernize the intercontinental ballistic missile leg of the triad.
Inhofe, however, is not in a position to offer Smith a New Start extension in exchange for protecting the ICBM modernization from cuts.
“The Senate, because it provided its consent to the treaty, has no further role in the actual extension,” Madelyn Creedon, former principal deputy administrator for the National Nuclear Security Administration, said during the hearing. “But it would be very helpful if the Senate, on a bipartisan basis, could indicate not only broad support for the treaty, but actually urged a five-year extension.”
New Start went into effect in 2011 and will expire in 2021 unless the U.S. President and head of the Russian Federation agree to extend it for five years.
“A five-year extension would allow an opportunity for discussions of what comes next in the U.S. Russia relationship, and in arms control,” Creedon said. “This could include non-strategic nuclear weapons, or some of the more novel systems that Russia has recently unveiled.”
New Start does not cover the intermediate-range missiles banned by the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces treaty from which the U.S. now plans to withdraw Aug. 2. Nor does it cover exotic Russian weapons such as the nuclear-powered, nuclear-armed, autonomous torpedo Russian President Vladimir Putin has publicly briefed.
Creedon urged Inhofe again and again to make clear to Trump that the best path forward for U.S.-Russia relations, and nuclear stability, is to extend New Start first and start talking about other nuclear weapons next.
The other two witnesses at the hearing — retired Strategic Command commander Gen. Robert Kehler and former National Security Council member Frank Miller — said it would be better to secure a promise from Russia to negotiate on non-strategic weapons before extending New Start.
The House is set for a quick riposte to the Senate hearing on March 6, when the lower chamber’s Armed Services Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing on nuclear deterrence and policy. Miller is set to testify, as is Bruce Blair: a researcher at Princeton University and a former Air Force missileer who last year published a detailed plan for drastically reducing the size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.
The White House, according to media reports, is expected to release its 2020 budget proposal March 18, about a week after the House Armed Services Committee’s hearing. The Armed Services Committees do not write budget bills, but they do write the annual National Defense Authorization Act that sets policy and spending limits for appropriators.
In 2018, the House rolled out its first draft of the annual National Defense Authorization Act in May.