Thornberry: Nuclear Modernization Most Contentious

U.S. Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas)
Credit: U.S. Congress

The most contentious U.S. defense issue lawmakers will debate before crafting the fiscal 2021 defense policy bill is nuclear modernization, a senior lawmaker says.

“There is temptation to say it’s worked pretty well so far, why do we need to mess with it and spend all this money,” House Armed Services Committee Ranking Member Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) said March 2 at the Brookings Institution.

Thornberry’s philosophy is that nuclear deterrence is the basis for all other defense efforts. He likened it to the foundation of a house—when it begins to crack there are implications for other aspects of the structure.

“It’s never more than 7% of the defense budget in any year to modernize not only the weapons, but all three legs of the triad and nuclear command and control,” Thornberry said. “But still, it’s a lot of money and you’re seeing this year a whole lot of people saying I could use that money for this or that.”

The Pentagon proposes in the fiscal 2021 budget spending $29 billion for nuclear modernization. Military officials argue there is not much margin in the schedule between the end-life legacy systems and when the new equipment is slated to be operational. This includes the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent, Northrop Grumman B-21 Raider, Long-Range Standoff Weapon, missile warning technology and the Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine. China and Russia are both modernizing their nuclear arsenals while the U.S. lags.

“We must proceed with modernization. Sustainment and modernization of our nuclear forces has transitioned from something that we should do to something that we must do,” U.S. Strategic Command chief Navy Adm. Charles Richard said in written testimony submitted to the Senate Armed Services Committee. “Continuing to maintain the Nation’s strategic deterrent needed to meet the challenges of the global security environment and to realize Presidential and Departmental guidance defined by the National Defense Strategy (NDS), National Military Strategy (NMS), and Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) requires continued Congressional support, budget stability, and on-time appropriations.”

There is already vocal opposition from a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee to the Trump administration’s pursuit of hypersonic and nuclear weapons. “Now the president is proposing a budget that dangerously increases spending on new nuclear weapons and leaves funding for nuclear nonproliferation programs flat. The United States should be working to rid the world of nuclear weapons, not creating new types and a larger stockpile,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said in a statement.

Thornberry is retiring after his current term and reflected on Congress’ decision to establish the National Nuclear Security Administration under the Department of Energy. “I’m not sure that was the right answer,” he said, because they have the majority of the budget. “You’ve got all of these people, not just the secretary and the deputy secretary, but all these other people who are wanting to reach in and tell them what to do, and how to do it and that does slow things down.”