The Democrats’ recapturing the House means three major impacts on the Defense Department: The odds are that controversial Trump priorities like new nuclear weapons and a Space Force will go nowhere, defense budgets will go down, and oversight will go up, up, up.
The most likely losers are nuclear modernization programs, which leading Democrats like Adam Smith, the prospective House Armed Services Committee chairman, have criticized as unnecessary, excessive, and destabilizing.
President Obama had supported nuclear modernization as the price for ratifying the New START treaty, the theory being that the United States would be secure with fewer nuclear weapons if that remaining inventory were modernized. That means the programs that were not in Obama’s plans would be most vulnerable, particularly the low-yield nuclear weapon and the Long Range Stand-Off cruise missile (LRSO). The low yield weapon has been called dangerous because it arguably makes it easier to escalate from conventional to nuclear warfare. The cruise missile has been called unnecessary, since US bombers already have other nuclear weapons like the B61 variable-yield bomb, although proponents argue that non-stealthy bombers like the B-52 will only be able to hit defended targets with a long-range weapon.
The Minuteman ICBM replacement, the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent, will also come under Democratic fire, even though the Obama administration had supported it. Why? Many arms control advocates have long criticized land-based missiles as so vulnerable to a first strike that it’s potentially destabilizing, since the president may feel forced to “use it or lose it” during a crisis. Conversely, the Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine will continue because of the consensus that this leg of the triad is the most survivable. The B-21 bomber will also continue since it has a large conventional mission, but it could be delayed.
Trump’s proposed Space Force is another loser. There are arguments for (increased focus on the domain of the future) and against (too much additional overhead), but such strategic considerations will be overwhelmed by the fact that this is a personal initiative of the president — who in turn picked up the idea from Republican Rep. Mike Rogers, who will lose much of his clout with his Strategic Forces subcommittee chairmanship.