Pentagon chief sees new nuclear missile as bargaining chip against Russians

Key Points
  • Defense Secretary James Mattis said the U.S. seeks to use a new nuclear-capable sea-launched cruise missile as a bargaining chip against Russia.
  • "I don't think the Russians would be willing to give up something to gain nothing from us," Mattis told a House Armed Services Committee hearing.
  • Mattis also was critical at the hearing about the lack of stable funding for national defense.
Secretary of Defense James Mattis
Aaron P. Bernstein | Reuters

Defense Secretary James Mattis said Washington plans to develop a nuclear-capable sea-launched cruise missile as negotiating leverage against Moscow.

"I don't think the Russians would be willing to give up something to gain nothing from us," Mattis said in comments to the House Armed Services Committee during testimony to discuss the new U.S. defense and nuclear strategies.

The Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) released Friday by the Pentagon calls for the U.S. to develop "a modern nuclear-armed sea-launched cruise missile." The document said the sea-launched cruise missile as well as a new "low-yield" option on the Trident missile would "provide additional diversity in platforms, range, and survivability, and a valuable hedge against future nuclear 'break-out' scenarios."

Mattis indicated that the nuclear-capable submarine-launched cruise missile would be something that U.S. diplomats could use as negotiating leverage during future arms control discussions with Moscow. He also said that the U.S. doesn't want to withdraw from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty despite Washington's contention that Russia is in violation of the Cold War-era agreement because of Moscow's deployment of a ground-launched cruise missile.

"We have an ongoing issue with Russia's violation of the INF," Mattis said. "I want to make certain that our negotiators have something to negotiate with."

Added Mattis, "We want Russia back into compliance [with the treaty]. We do not want to forgo the INF. But at the same time, we have options if Russia continues to go down this path."

According to Mattis, the new weapons proposed in the nuclear policy would also be a deterrent against Russia since some of Moscow's leaders have promoted the use of a low-yield nuclear weapons in a conventional warfare scenario.

The Defense secretary said the Russians essentially want to "escalate to victory and then deescalate. We want to make certain they recognize that we can respond in kind. We don't have to go with a high-yield weapon. Thus, the deterrent effort stays primary."

Mattis emphasized that the development of new low-yield nuclear weapons isn't a way to lower the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons. He said the U.S. is "not expanding the role of nuclear weapons, and it remains U.S. policy to consider employing nuclear weapons only in extreme circumstances to defend the vital interests of the United States, its allies and partners."

Yet, some have charged that the Trump administration's new nuclear policy shows a greater willingness to use nuclear weapons first and also that proposed new low-yield nuclear weapons are unnecessary since the U.S. already has significant nuclear deterrent capabilities with the existing nuclear triad — land, sea and air-based capabilities.

Mattis said in his testimony Tuesday that he had received a letter sent from a group of senators that claimed the administration's new nuclear policy would undermine decades of efforts by the U.S. to reduce the threat posed by nuclear weapons.

However, Mattis asserted that the new nuclear weapons policy is one that "reaffirms the mutually reinforcing role of nuclear deterrence in a complex and dynamic security environment while underscoring continued U.S. commitment to non-proliferation, counter-nuclear terrorism and arms control."

The Defense official also said the Pentagon's nuclear review offers a "hedge against future uncertainties and dangers." He indicated that the "principal priorities" of the Defense Department "are long-term strategic competitions with China and Russia."

Meantime, Mattis also was critical at the hearing about the lack of stable funding for national defense from Congress.

Five months into fiscal 2018, the Pentagon is operating under its fourth short-term continuing resolution funding that is set to expire Thursday. Even so, there was debate on the House floor Tuesday about a new government funding bill that included legislation to fund the U.S. military for the rest of fiscal 2018.

"I regret that without sustained, predictable appropriations, my presence here today wastes your time, because no strategy can survive without the funding necessary to resource it," Mattis said.

The Defense secretary said the Pentagon has been forced to deal with "debilitating continuing resolutions for more than 1,000 days during the past decade. It is not lost on me that as I testify before you this morning, we are again on the verge of a government shutdown, or at best, another damaging continuing resolution."

During his testimony, Mattis listed impacts to the military should Congress "stumble into a yearlong continuing resolution," including not being able to fill what he termed "critical manning shortfalls" in the Air Force and Army. Also, he said it would hurt maintenance of aircraft and Navy vessels as well as deplete ammunition, training and manpower the U.S. needs to deter war.

"I cannot overstate the impact to our troops' morale from all this uncertainty," he said.

Mattis also said the continued reliance on short-term funding for defense would "delay contracts for vital acquisition programs necessary to modernize the force."

Finally, he insisted that the U.S. military still is "capable, but our competitive edge has eroded in every domain of warfare — air, land, sea, space and cyber. Under frequent continuing resolutions and sequester's budget caps, our advantages continue to shrink."