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Progressives, hawks brawl over nuclear modernization spending in 2022 defense budget

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a rally with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the US Capitol on March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)
A deactivated Titan II nuclear intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) is seen in a silo at the Titan Missile Museum, in Green Valley, Arizona, the US, on May 12, 2015. (File photo by AFP)

Nuclear weapons are emerging as one of the top political brawls in Washington, with progressives and hawks on Capitol Hill fighting over how much the nation should spend on costly nuclear modernization programs in next year’s defense budget.

Leading progressive voices in Congress are urging US President Joe Biden to terminate the development of several new nuclear weapons as part of a broader effort to cut spending and reduce the role of atomic bombs in military strategy.

Republicans are also pushing back with their own letters and op-eds calling on the Biden administration to expand America’s nuclear modernization programs, which mostly began during the administration of his former boss, Barack Obama.

The back-and-forth over nuclear modernization reflects the broader political divide facing the new administration as it prepares to present its first National Defense Authorization Act to Congress.

Top Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee urged Biden in a letter on Thursday to increase defense spending by 3 to 5 percent, citing nuclear modernization needs as well as bolstering cyber and naval capabilities.

“As you prepare your administration’s fiscal year 2022 (FY22) budget for submission to Congress, we urge you to reject demands from many on the left to cut or freeze defense spending at current levels,” ranking member Rep. Mike Rogers, Republican from Alaska and a number of his colleagues wrote to Biden.

“The next four years are going to be a crucial period for our military and our nation,” they added. “If we do not make the investments our military needs today, we will not be able to defend our nation or our allies in the future.”

The recommendation was in line with a recent report by the hawkish Heritage Foundation that offered its annual recommendations for the upcoming defense budget, calling on the Biden administration to boost defense spending by 3 to 5 percent while acknowledging that skyrocketing debt and pressing domestic needs mean hikes will be difficult if not impossible.

The report also called on Congress to “robustly fund DOD nuclear modernization programs to accelerate their schedules rather than provide the bare minimum needed.”

On the other side of the aisle, Democrats and progressives have also expressed concern about the price tag associated with nuclear modernization programs, in particular an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) known as the Ground-based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD).

The accumulated cost of the nuclear modernization could reach an estimated $1.7 trillion over 30 years, according to a 2017 Government Accountability Office report.

Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen of Maryland and Rep. Joe Courtney, Democrat from Connecticut, introduced legislation on Thursday to prohibit production and deployment of the nuclear-armed sea-launched cruise missile and its associated warhead.

“Putting new, expensive nuclear warheads on attack submarines and surface ships that haven’t carried those weapons in almost thirty years is a distraction that will suck precious resources away from the most pressing need of the US Navy—namely, to increase the size of its overworked fleet,” Rep. Courtney, who sits on the House Armed Services Committee, said in a statement.

“This legislation is a commonsense bill that will stop the hemorrhaging of precious Navy dollars for a wasteful program that Congress barely debated,” the congressman added.

In a letter on Thursday, Senator Ed Markey, Democrat of Massachusetts, and Democratic Rep. Ro Khanna of California also urged President Biden to make sure that his fiscal 2020 budget request will “reflect the hard, cold reality that there is no such thing as a winnable nuclear war.”

“The United States can retain a safe, secure, and effective nuclear deterrent which is also affordable and enhances our national security,” the lawmakers said.

They specifically called on Biden, among other things, to “pause further development” of the $100 billion Ground Based Strategic Deterrent program, one of the most controversial aspects of the nuclear modernization program. 

The new nuclear weapon under development will be able to travel some 6,000 miles, carrying a warhead more than 20 times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

The US Air Force is reportedly plannig to order 600 of them.

The United States currently has over 3,800 stockpiled strategic and non-strategic warheads in its nuclear arsenal. That is on top of the 2,385 retired warheads awaiting dismantlement.

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