Senior Democrats Want Audit of Nuclear Warhead Plan

Smith, Kaptur skeptical of administration plan

Rep. Marcy Kaptur has joined with a fellow Democrat overseeing the nuclear arsenal to ask for an audit on modernization efforts. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

The two most senior House Democrats who oversee the U.S. nuclear arsenal want an audit of the cost of and justification for modernizing certain nuclear warheads.

Adam Smith of Washington, ranking member on the Armed Services Committee, and Marcy Kaptur of Ohio, ranking member on the Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water, questioned “the affordability and need” for so-called interoperable warheads in a letter to Gene Dodaro, who heads the Government Accountability Office, Congress’ watchdog.

“We are concerned there is a lack of detailed analysis or clear need for this program, including continuing uncertainty about the reason for developing and producing a new warhead and the funding costs that could detract from key programs needed to sustain the rest of the nuclear enterprise,” Smith and Kaptur wrote to GAO’s Dodaro.

The March 21 letter is the latest sign that the fiercest defense budget debate of the Trump administration is likely to surround modernizing America’s atomic weapons. The planned upgrades would cost more than $1 trillion to acquire and operate, by some estimates, and Trump has advocated expanding U.S. atomic firepower further still.

The modernization plan Trump inherited includes new submarines, bombers and missiles. It also includes developing five new types of warheads to replace the seven different varieties in service.

The new warhead plan is to develop three types that can be used on both submarine-launched and ground-launched missiles, as well as two other models that can be delivered via bombs or cruise missiles.

Just the three types of interoperable warheads for ballistic missiles could cost scores of billions of dollars to acquire, experts have said.

Smith and Kaptur question the need for them. The Navy has just upgraded a submarine-launched warhead, they wrote in the letter, and they suggest the Air Force could extend the lives of its warheads. Plus, the justification for the program has shifted, they said, and now includes the argument that the upgrades are needed to sustain skills in the nuclear workforce.

The lawmakers want the GAO to examine “as soon as possible” the need for these warheads and what alternative acquisition approaches might be available.

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