The House Armed Services Committee added several provisions to its annual defense authorization bill, but the among most contentious was if the Pentagon should develop a low-yield nuclear weapon to deploy on nuclear ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs).
Support for and arguments against the strategic forces subcommittee mark of the Fiscal Year 2020 National Defense Authorization Act prohibiting the Navy from deploying low-yield atomic weapons on SSBNs broke along party lines.
Prohibiting the Navy from deploying with low-yield nuclear weapons puts the U.S. at a disadvantage, Republican committee members said, because Russia is believed to be developing and deploying smaller warheads. Russia, the argument goes, could be encouraged to use these smaller nuclear weapons if its leaders think the U.S. will be reluctant to respond if their only options were larger atomic weapons.
In contrast, Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), the HASC chair, said the U.S. needs to let Russia and any other nuclear power understand escalation leads to escalation, and the U.S. response to the use of nuclear weapons will be swift and profound.
“We don’t care about a fair fight. We’re going to kick their ass if they take us on,” Smith said. “So, why we’re obsessing about a proportional response, I don’t know.”
Prohibiting the Navy from deploying with low-yield nuclear weapons is really about protecting the integrity of the nation’s nuclear triad – which along with sub-launched missiles, includes land-based and air-launched nukes, said Rep. Jim Cooper, (D-Tenn.), chair of the strategic forces subcommittee. The U.S. Air Force already has a stockpile of low-yield nuclear weapons, so the U.S. leadership still has options for a comparable response, if desired.
However, the underlying notion of the prohibition is taking away an option, Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), the HASC ranking member said.
“I believe we need more options,” Thornberry said. “We need to be strong.”