House panel shoots down funding, deployment of low-yield nukes in defense bill

House panel shoots down funding, deployment of low-yield nukes in defense bill
© Greg Nash

Following a lively debate that lasted more than an hour, the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday shot down two amendments that would have paved the way for additional funding for and deployment of low-yield nuclear warheads.

The debate — which kicked off the panel's markup of its strategic forces subcommittee's portion of the fiscal 2020 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) — sets up a contentious fight in aligning the legislation with the GOP-controlled Senate Armed Services Committee’s version of the bill.

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Rep. Liz CheneyElizabeth (Liz) Lynn CheneyGOP hopes dim on reclaiming House GOP hopes dim on reclaiming House Republicans raise concerns over House campaign arm leadership MORE (R-Wyo.), offered the two amendments, one to strike the ban on deploying the W76-2 low-yield nuclear warhead on submarines and another to increase funding to it as well as Trident II submarine-launched ballistic missiles.   

Both provisions were struck down in separate 30-26 votes along party lines.

The first, which would have undone the prohibition on funds for deployment of low-yield ballistic missile warheads on submarines, brought more than 45 minutes of debate. The Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review had called for the low-yield weapons, but Democrats in the House hope to use the NDAA to limit the weapons

Cheney and her fellow Republican colleagues argued the U.S. needed a credible response to prevent Russia or other aggressive nations from using their own low-yield weapons. They said rogue nations may be willing to use a smaller nuclear warhead because they don't believe the U.S. military would respond with a larger nuclear weapons. Having an equal strike option, a tit for tat, would deter weapons from ever being used, they argued.

“Why we would want to take away options for ourselves when our adversaries have options does not make sense to me,” said committee ranking member, Rep. Mac ThornberryWilliam (Mac) McClellan ThornberryOvernight Defense: Pompeo blames Iran for oil tanker attacks | House panel approves 3B defense bill | Trump shares designs for red, white and blue Air Force One House panel approves 3B defense policy bill House panel approves 3B defense policy bill MORE (R-Texas).

Democratic lawmakers, however, contended any use of a low-yield nuke by an enemy would trigger a nuclear war, regardless of what size weapons the United States puts on its submarines.

Simply having a low-yield nuke in the arsenal is enough of a deterrent, they said. And placing the weapon on submarines would take up valuable space that would normally be reserved for larger, strategic weapons.

The debate grew heated, with Cheney asserting Democratic lawmakers’ move to block deployment of the low-yield nuke would waste millions of dollars spent on development, and does not decrease Russia’s likeliness of using nuclear weapons.

Democrats, including Rep. John GaramendiJohn Raymond GaramendiHouse panel shoots down funding, deployment of low-yield nukes in defense bill House panel shoots down funding, deployment of low-yield nukes in defense bill Overnight Defense: Latest on House defense bill markup | Air Force One, low-yield nukes spark debate | House Dems introduce resolutions blocking Saudi arms sales | Trump to send 1,000 troops to Poland MORE (Calif), fired back that deploying the weapons could undermine traditional nuclear deterrence strategy and that any occurrence where there would be a tit for tat “is a god awful situation, we should never go there.”

The NDAA is expected to be passed by the House Armed Services Committee late Wednesday or early Thursday morning and will head to the full House for debate.

Updated Thursday at 12:42 p.m.