US Lawmakers Duel Over Plans to Upgrade Nuclear Arsenal

An unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) is launched during an operational test at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., Feb. 20, 2016. (U.S. Strategic Command)An unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) is launched during an operational test at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., Feb. 20, 2016. (U.S. Strategic Command)

In competing letters this month to the Obama administration, U.S. lawmakers dueled over plans to upgrade the military’s nuclear arsenal.

On Wednesday, a group of 10 Democratic senators urged President Barack Obama to restrain spending on nuclear weapons by “scaling back excessive nuclear modernization plans, adopting a policy of no-first-use of nuclear weapons, and canceling launch-on-warning plans.”

The July 20 letter cites independent studies that estimate upgrading and sustaining the nuclear arsenal may cost $1 trillion over three decades.

It was signed by Edward Markey and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer of California, Al Franken of Minnesota, Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley of Oregon, Patrick Leahy and Bernie Sanders of Vermont, and Sherrod Brown of Ohio.

The current U.S. nuclear arsenal stands at less than 1,600 warheads, according to a March report from the Congressional Research Service.

That includes about 440 Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs); some 336 Trident II (D-5) submarine-launched ballistic missiles carried in 14 Trident submarines (each carries 24 missiles); hundreds of B61 bombs for B-2 Spirit bombers and F-16 Fighting Falcon fighters; and hundreds of AGM-86B air-launched cruise missiles for B-52 Stratofortress bombers, according to CRS.

In the letter, the Democratic senators urged the cancellation of the Air Force‘s plans to develop a new nuclear cruise missile, the Long Range Standoff Weapon, as a replacement to the AGM-86B beginning around 2030. The program would cost $20 billion and “provide an unnecessary capability that would increase the risk of nuclear war,” they wrote.

Military leaders want the weapon in part to give Air Force bombers a better “standoff capability,” thus extending their effective range, especially as potential adversaries such as China and Russia develop more sophisticated air defenses.

The Defense Department has proposed spending $8.5 billion on missile defense programs in fiscal 2017, which begins Oct. 1, an 6.5 percent decrease from the current year, according to Pentagon budget documents.

The letter came a week after a bipartisan group of Republicans and Democrats wrote to Defense Secretary Ashton Carter in favor of nuclear modernization.

“The three legs of the nuclear triad combine to form a very effective deterrent,” they said in the July 12 correspondence. “The three legs — land-based missiles, bombers and nuclear submarines — are aging and must be modernized to ensure this interlocking triad continues its decades-long record of protecting the nation.”

It was signed by John Hoeven, a Republican from North Dakota; Steve Daines, a Republican from Montana; Jon Tester, a Democrat from Montana; Orrin Hatch, a Republican from Utah; Joe Donnelly, a Democrat from Indiana; Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat from North Dakota; Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida; Mark Warner, a Democrat from Virginia; David Vitter, a Republican from Louisiana; Martin Heinrich, a Democrat from New Mexico; John Barrasso, a Republican from Wyoming; Tim Kaine, a Democrat from Virginia; Deb Fischer, a Republican from Nebraska; and Jack Reed, a Democrat from Rhode Island.

About the Author

Brendan McGarry
Brendan McGarry is the managing editor of Military.com. He can be reached at brendan.mcgarry@military.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Brendan_McGarry.