Having won control of the House of Representatives for the upcoming 116th Congress, Democrats are likely to heighten scrutiny of the nuclear arsenal modernization regime and paint a big target on the back of the low-yield, submarine-launched ballistic missile authorized this year.
In the past few months, Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), likely chair of the House Armed Services Committee starting in January, has argued publicly that the U.S. nuclear arsenal on the whole could use a haircut.
“The bottom line is, we can get the deterrence we need with fewer nuclear weapons,” Smith, currently ranking Democrat on the committee, told Weapons Complex Morning Briefing in September. “I’m open to the conversation [of] ‘is that fewer aspects in all of the Triad?’”
Smith indicated a willingness to protect at least the submarine leg, which he called “the most important part” of the Triad.
But it could be open season on the other two legs: the Air Force’s ground-based intercontinental ballistic missiles and strategic bombers. In particular, Smith told Morning Briefing that the U.S. has, and wants to buy, too many ICBMs.
The likely chair-to-be also said a low-yield variant of the W76 submarine warhead — funded for the first time this year against the wishes of Armed Services Democrats — should be banned.
Smith put his money where his mouth was when he signed on to a bill that would ban research, development, manufacturing, and fielding of the planned low-yield, submarine-launched ballistic-missile warhead for which Congress and the White House approved $65 million in funding for fiscal 2019.
Dubbed the W76-2, the missile would be a dialed-down version of the higher-yield W76 already used on the Trident II-D5 missiles carried aboard Ohio-class ballistic-missile submarines. Smith has been skeptical of the Trump administration argument that the U.S. needs the warhead to counter similarly powerful Russian weapons that Moscow could use to end a conflict it starts, but cannot finish, with conventional weapons.
Even if Smith should take the gavel, Republicans picked up Senate seats in Tuesday’s midterm elections, bolstering a bulwark of votes that were already firmly in favor of the current nuclear modernization regime. And, of course, President Donald Trump will remain in the White House for the entirety of the 116th Congress.