Nuclear arms hawks give bureaucratic mauling to Biden vow to curb arsenal

Defence budget and nuclear posture review are battlegrounds as Republicans seek to block limits on US use of weapons

A battle is being fought in Washington over the Biden administration’s nuclear weapons policy, amid fears by arms control advocates that the president will renege on campaign promises to rein in the US arsenal.

The battlegrounds are a nuclear posture review (NPR) due early next year and a defence budget expected about the same time. At stake is a chance to put the brakes on an arms race between the US, Russia and China – or the risk of that race accelerating.

Despite Biden’s pledge during the campaign – and in his interim national security guidance issued in March – that his administration would reduce “our reliance and excessive expenditure on nuclear weapons”, hawks at the Pentagon have won the early skirmishes.

Biden is also under pressure from some allies, nervous about Biden’s past support for limiting the use of nuclear weapons to the “sole purpose” of deterring, and retaliating against, a nuclear attack on the US or its allies.

The current US posture is broader, leaving open a nuclear response to “significant non-nuclear strategic attacks”. Britain and France also retain a certain amount of ambiguity about when they would use their weapons, and are concerned a US change to “sole purpose” would oblige them ultimately to narrow their options. Paris has taken the lead in conveying those anxieties, and Emmanuel Macron raised nuclear posture issues with Biden when the two met in Rome on Friday.

The big struggle, however, is on the home front, where arms control advocates are on the defensive.

The administration’s first defence budget in February included $43bn for an array of nuclear modernisation schemes, including controversial programmes introduced by Donald Trump, like a new sea-launched cruise missile. The total cost of modernisation could be over $1.5tn.

In September, one of Biden’s political appointees at the Pentagon, Leonor Tomero, who questioned the need for such a vast and growing nuclear weapons budget, was forced out in a bureaucratic power struggle after just nine months in the post. Her job had been to oversee the drafting of the NPR, which sets out what nuclear weapons the US should have and under what conditions they could be used.

The official reason for Tomero’s departure was that her job as deputy assistant secretary for nuclear and missile defense policy had disappeared as part of efforts to streamline the Pentagon bureaucracy.

“This transition of her duties is the result of a reorganization decision designed to more appropriately align the policy’s shop structure with policy objectives,” John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, said. “The nuclear posture review continues and is being handled by a large group of experts from across the department under the purview of the under secretary for policy.”

But several congressional sources said that her departure came after pressure from a Republican hardliner, Senator Deb Fischer of Nebraska, a staunch supporter of the nuclear weapons establishment, who threatened to hold up confirmations of senior Biden nominees if Tomero was not removed.

Senator Deb Fischer of Nebraska is alleged to have been behind the ousting of a Biden appointee from nuclear policy responsibilities.
Senator Deb Fischer of Nebraska is alleged to have been behind the ousting of a Biden appointee from nuclear policy responsibilities. Photograph: Rex/Shutterstock

Senator Fischer’s office did not respond to a request for comment. A Pentagon spokesman said: “I don’t have any information to provide on this, but generally we cannot comment on personal discussions between department leadership and members of Congress.”

“It seems like the minute she got there she was under attack from people who were working behind the scenes, with congressional Republicans, to put pressure on senior Pentagon officials to get rid of Leonor,” said Jeffrey Lewis, an expert in nuclear non-proliferation and geopolitics at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. “This is all about making progressive views on nuclear weapons unacceptable.”

Senator Edward Markey, a Democrat, has written to Biden demanding to know why Tomero had been removed in the midst of drafting the NPR, demanding to know if “ideology played any role”.

Arms control advocates complain the Democrats have not been as ruthless as Republicans in pursuit of their policies. A Trump appointee, Drew Walter, a former senior Republican staffer on the House armed services committee, has been allowed to “burrow in” as deputy assistant secretary for nuclear matters, converting from a political appointee to a career official. Tomero was Walter’s Democratic counterpart when they were in Congress, but the Biden administration failed to protect her once she moved to the Pentagon.

Nickolas Roth, the director of the nuclear security programme at the Stimson Center thinktank, said: “I am concerned that the removal of Leonor from her position will have a chilling effect throughout the Biden administration, on those who might be willing to propose anything other than the status quo for US nuclear weapons policy.”

The deputy national security adviser, Jonathan Finer, played down concerns that conservatives in the Pentagon would be able to shape the NPR.

“This is going to be the president’s posture review and the president’s policy,” Finer insisted at a Ploughshares Fund event last month. “He has asked the Pentagon, as has been the tradition in the past, to take the lead on drafting the posture review … but by the time we get to the end, it will be the president’s document.”

With that in mind, Democrats have been reminding Biden that every dollar spent on weapons programmes inherited from his predecessors is a dollar less spent on the social aspirations of the administration.

“The administration must harness this opportunity to rethink the status quo and not just rubber-stamp the Pentagon and defense industry’s interest in continuing unnecessary weapons,” Senator Jeff Merkley told the Guardian. “Business as usual risks fuelling an unnecessary arms race and squanders billions of dollars that could go towards improving Americans’ health, education and housing costs or better investments in national security.”

Senator Jeff Merkley: ‘Business as usual risks fuelling an unnecessary arms race.’
Senator Jeff Merkley: ‘Business as usual risks fuelling an unnecessary arms race.’ Photograph: Bonnie Cash/UPI/Rex/Shutterstock

The White House has sought to placate Democrats by agreeing to an independent review of the feasibility of extending the life of the current Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile, compared with replacing with it a new weapon, the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD). The review is expected to deliver its conclusions next year, although as the review panel has been selected by the Pentagon, it is not expected to upset plans to go ahead with the $100bn GBSD.

China’s nuclear weapons development, including the recent reported testing of a nuclear-capable hypersonic glider launched from orbit, has increased the political pressure on Biden to abandon his arms control pledges, although the Chinese arsenal is still dwarfed by the US total of 3,750 warheads.

Emma Belcher, the president of the Ploughshares Fund, an arms control advocacy organisation, argued that China’s rise as a nuclear weapons power only underlines the urgency of arms control.

“The best way to control the situation and head off an arms race with China is through diplomacy and restraint,” Belcher said. “We’ve seen this movie before. It’s expensive and dangerous. So what we’re hoping we’ll see from the NPR is for diplomacy to be put first, and an off ramp from a new kind of cold war.”


Julian Borger in Washington

The GuardianTramp

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