Last week, both the House and Senate passed their respective drafts of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) with veto-proof majorities. Congress will go on to workshop a final product together behind closed doors. Once both sides are satisfied with a final compromise, the $740 billion bill goes on to the president. This traditionally bipartisan bill has seen compromise on issues such as the renaming of Confederate bases. Friction does lie ahead, however, as the House and Senate have opposing provisions on nuclear testing, a continuation of a larger debate over the merits and demerits of nuclear-testing readiness.
While the House passed a complete test ban on nuclear weapons, the Senate adopted an amendment from Senator Tom Cotton (R., Ark.) that sets aside $10 million to “carry out projects related to reducing the time required to execute a nuclear test if necessary.” With a Democrat-led House and Republican-led Senate, the question of nuclear-test preparedness is set to be a partisan affair.
I discussed the Senate amendment in a previous piece, noting its auspicious timing. In May, there were revelations that the Trump administration was considering the possibility of conducting a nuclear test to catalyze negotiations for a trilateral nuclear agreement with China and Russia. The amendment was associated with — as I saw it — an ill-reasoned negotiation strategy by the Trump administration, one with many defects as a negotiation tactic. Yet this needed to be distinguished from the Senate amendment’s policy of preparedness, as I generally support the idea of maintaining the U.S. nuclear infrastructure. Finally, this previous piece established the shortcomings of the U.S. nuclear arsenal as it stands, noting its potential weakness in any situation truly requiring a nuclear test.
Democrats are largely against nuclear testing or any funding related to such an option. In early June, after revelations of the Trump administration’s tentative plan, Democrats called testing “short-sighted and dangerous,” citing the dangers of escalation and environmental impact, and noting that the U.S. can assess its arsenal without a physical test (which the U.S. hasn’t used since 1992). On June 3rd, Senator Ed Markey (D., Mass.) introduced his Preserving Leadership Against Nuclear Explosives Testing (PLANET) Act which would prevent the Trump administration from using any funding for nuclear-weapons testing. Markey said: “Congress must use its power of the purse to deny President Trump from sparking a global return to testing the most powerful weapon ever created by man.”
In his successful House NDAA amendment blocking funding for nuclear testing, Representative Ben McAdams (D., Utah) echoed these same sentiments, saying that “explosive nuclear testing is not necessary to ensure our stockpile remains safe” and that testing “causes irreparable harm to human health and to our environment and jeopardizes the U.S. leadership role on nuclear nonproliferation.”
Democrats are partially correct in worrying about the possible ramifications of an explosive test. It is unlikely that a physical explosion would bring China and Russia to the table, and far more likely that escalations would ensue. So it is reasonable to counter the Trump administration’s potential testing efforts. But it is unreasonable to block efforts to ensure the readiness of nuclear testing.
Whether or not the $10 million facilitates the administration’s proposed test, it is useful in and of itself for a couple of reasons. First, the U.S. nuclear arsenal is falling into disrepair. Despite virtual testing simulations, nuclear weapons bear the unknown effects of aging and lack of maintenance. Should there ever be a true need for a nuclear test, the U.S. would likely not be ready.
Second, as American adversaries carry out their own nuclear agendas and global nuclear affairs become more uncertain, the U.S. can send a message of preparedness without necessarily sparking escalations. China is restoring and building up its nuclear program as the U.S. has tried (and continually failed) to get the nation to sign on to a trilateral arms control treaty with Russia. Just last Thursday, the president spoke with Vladimir Putin on the matter. White House spokesman Judd Deere said that the president “reiterated his hope of avoiding an expensive three-way arms race between China, Russia and the United States and looked forward to progress on upcoming arms control negotiations in Vienna.” While a full-on explosive test could spark an arms race, a mere effort to be prepared for a test is not outwardly escalatory. Baseline preparedness is also essential in signaling U.S. nonproliferation leadership; maintaining credible nuclear capabilities is foundational to deterrence and nonproliferation.
As the Senate and House convene to finalize the NDAA, policymakers would be wise to prevent any outright test. However, this does not require tabling funding for “reducing the time required” to test. There can and must be a line between escalation and ensuring strength and leadership.