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Low-yield nukes lose partisan fight in HASC NDAA markup

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WASHINGTON ― The House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday rejected a series of Republican amendments aimed at preserving funds for the nuclear arsenal, including one to protect deployment of low-yield nuclear weapons on submarines.

During its markup of the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act, the panel sharply debated and then voted, largely along party lines, to reject the amendments. Democrats hold a 31-26 majority on the panel.

Still, the language is likely to be a sticking point if it survives into negotiations with the GOP-controlled Senate Armed Services Committee.

Republicans argued that the bill’s language barring the deployment of the W76-2 submarine launched low-yield nuclear missile equates to unilateral disarmament, wastes sunk costs to develop the and robs the U.S. of a proportional response to a notional Russian attack using a tactical nuclear weapon. The weapons were ordered by the Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review.

“Why we would want to take away options for ourselves when our adversaries have options does not make sense to me,” said the committee’s ranking member, Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas. “We need to take a decision and move forward with it.”

Some Democrats countered that it’s a greater deterrent to respond to a tactical nuclear strike with a higher yield weapon. If an otherwise stealthy submarine launched such a missile, it would expose itself to attack, reducing the strategic value of the sea-based leg of the nuclear triad.

“If we start mixing and matching the missiles these boats carry … how does the enemy discriminate on what’s coming at them,” said HASC Seapower chairman Joe Courtney, D-Conn.

The Strategic Forces Subcommittee’s ranking member, Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, and the committee’s chairman, Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., tangled over whether lawmakers had received enough information to make an informed decision. Smith said members knew enough to decide against, “an acceptable nuclear war.”

“If you look at the W76-2, it’s such a tiny, tiny, tiny fraction overall nuclear force, it’s not even a rounding error. So to make this the be-all and end-all of our nuclear arsenal is misleading,” said the Strategic Forces Subcommittee’s chairman, Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn.

Democrats dealt Republicans a series of defeats on a series of their proposals. Chiefly, Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., and the No. 3 Republican in the House, sponsored two separate amendments to protect low-yield nuclear weapons deployment, which each failed along party lines.

Republicans won a few votes. Cheney successfully killed the bill’s proposed study of whether the life of the current-generation ICBMs, Minuteman III, could be extended through 2050. She also added language ordering a Defense Department study of how China might fit into a renewed NEW Start nuclear weapons treaty.

The committee rejected an amendment to preserve a requirement the Department of Energy make 80 plutonium pits ― a nuclear bomb part ― a year by the end of the next decade. The amendment, from Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., supports a split for nuclear core production between New Mexico and South Carolina.

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