Congress Endorses New Nuclear Weapon

January/February 2024
By Shannon Bugos

Congress authorized $260 million for a new nuclear-armed sea-launched cruise missile (SLCM) for fiscal year 2024, despite the Biden administration’s clear desire not to pursue the weapon’s development.

U.S. representatives, from left, Mikie Sherrill (D-N.J.), Veronica Escobar (D-Texas), Harriet Hageman (R-Wyo.), Laurel Lee (R-Fla.), and Mike Collins (R-Ga.), attend the House and Senate conference committee markup of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2024 on Capitol Hill on Nov. 29. (Photo by Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)The administration did not request any funding for the nuclear SLCM in 2023 or 2024 because it assessed that the weapon has only “marginal utility” and would “impede investment in other priorities.” (See ACT, May and November 2023.) But for the second consecutive year, Congress overrode the Pentagon’s decision due to a majority of lawmakers viewing the SLCM as critical in the current nuclear environment.

The fiscal year 2024 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) authorizes $190 million for the missile and $70 million for its associated warhead.

The topline NDAA came in at $874 billion, a 3 percent increase from the 2023 NDAA. The grand total for national defense, which includes additional national discretionary defense spending that falls outside of the NDAA, is $886 billion.

The Senate passed the NDAA in an 87-13 vote on Dec. 13, followed by the House in a 310-118 vote on Dec. 14. President Joe Biden signed the NDAA into law on Dec. 23.

On Dec. 8, Congress unveiled the final version of the NDAA, which resolved differences between the respective House and Senate versions of the legislation passed in June.

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) lambasted the final version of the NDAA because it no longer included an amendment that would have expanded the law compensating people who were exposed to radiation due to U.S. nuclear testing and production, known as downwinders, to additional states, extended the law for 19 years, and added coverage to uranium workers and Missouri communities harmed by discarded Manhattan Project nuclear waste.

Hawley was one of six Republican senators who voted against the NDAA’s final passage. The amendment’s exclusion is “a betrayal of the tens of thousands of Americans made sick by their government’s nuclear waste who have relied on this program for life-saving help,” Hawley said on Dec. 8, referring to the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA). With this amendment, Hawley’s state of Missouri, along with Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, and Guam, would have been added to RECA, which currently covers people who resided in Arizona, Nevada, and Utah during the years when nuclear testing took place.

Sen. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.), a co-sponsor of the amendment, told The Hill on Dec. 8, “We cannot turn a blind eye to those who sacrificed for our national security.”

Overall, Congress fulfilled the Biden administration’s 2024 budget requests for nuclear weapons-related programs and activities, with some adjustments.

Lawmakers authorized $4.3 billion for continued research and development and initial procurement of the new Sentinel intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) system, which reflects a slight decrease of 0.2 percent from the request. The Air Force aims to purchase a total of about 650 Sentinel ICBMs and deploy 400 of them to replace Minuteman III ICBMs.

Bloomberg reported on Dec. 14 that the Air Force may have to assess whether the Sentinel project should be canceled as a result of major unexpected cost increases. One estimate suggests that the project may cost as much as 50 percent more than its projected $96 billion.

The Pentagon on Oct. 30 awarded Lockheed Martin a nearly $1 billion sole-source contract to provide a new reentry vehicle to carry the W87-1 warhead for the Sentinel system by 2039.

The Air Force conducted a routine test of an unarmed Minuteman III on Nov. 1, but the test culminated in intentional destruction of the test ICBM over the Pacific Ocean due to an unspecified “anomaly” during the launch.

For the Air Force, Congress also authorized $5.3 billion for R&D and construction of the B-21 Raider dual-capable strategic bomber and $958 million, a $20 million decrease from the request, for the new nuclear-capable air-launched cruise missile, known as the Long-Range Standoff Weapons (LRSO) system. Over the coming years, the Air Force plans to buy a total of about 100 bombers and 1,000 missiles.

The B-21 bomber, unveiled a year ago, had its highly anticipated first flight test on Nov. 10 in California.

For the Navy, Congress authorized $6.1 billion for R&D and procurement of what ultimately will be a fleet of 12 Columbia-class ballistic missile submarines, a $10 million increase from the request. As planned, this will allow for the purchase of one submarine in 2024, the second submarine of the fleet.

The Army does not have a nuclear weapons program, but has been developing a conventional, ground-launched midrange missile, a capability previously prohibited under the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which ended in 2019 after the United States withdrew from the agreement. This capability, known as the Typhon system, features modified Standard Missile-6 and Tomahawk cruise missiles.

Congress authorized the requested $170 million for the purchase of 58 new Block V Tomahawk missiles, as well as $32 million for continued R&D.

Although the Pentagon handles nuclear weapons delivery systems, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) maintains and develops the nuclear warheads.

The NNSA asked in October to amend its 2024 budget request to account for its unanticipated decision to develop an additional variant of the B61 nuclear gravity bomb. (See ACT, December 2023.) Congress granted the request for $52 million for developmental engineering activities for the new variant, the B61-13.

The Pentagon hopes that the B61-13 variant will help catalyze the retirement process of the B83 megaton gravity bomb, which some lawmakers have resisted, believing the B83 to be necessary to target hard and deeply buried targets.

Congress authorized the NNSA requests for the B61-12 gravity bomb, the W87-1 ICBM warhead, the W80 LRSO warhead, and the new controversial W93 submarine-launched ballistic missile programs at $450 million, $1.1 billion, $1 billion, and $390 million, respectively. Lawmakers authorized the requested $1.8 billion for plutonium-pit production at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and a $142 million increase to a total of $1.1 billion for plutonium-pit production at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina.

In addition, Congress authorized the Biden administration’s request for $351 million for the Cooperative Threat Reduction program, which endeavors to counter threats from weapons of mass destruction and related challenges, including the spread of dangerous pathogens such as the coronavirus.

Although the NDAA provides the approval for federal defense spending, no money actually can be spent until Congress also passes and the president signs the relevant defense and energy and water appropriations legislation. So far, no appropriations legislation has reached the president’s desk.