Speaking to CNN on Tuesday, Dmitry Peskov, a spokesperson for Russian President Vladimir Putin, reiterated a well-known tenet of Russian military doctrine: The country could resort to the use of nuclear weapons if it perceives an “existential threat.” Russian Deputy Ambassador to the United Nations Dmitry Polyanskiy made a similar comment to Sky News, saying that nuclear war could be a possible outcome if the country is “provoked” or “attacked” by NATO. Pentagon press secretary John Kirby called Peskov’s comments to CNN “dangerous,” saying: “It’s not the way a responsible nuclear power should act” — begging the question of whether there is such a thing as a “responsible” nuclear power.
As the Ukrainian resistance, fortified by NATO arms, continues to fend off a Russian takeover, Putin is growing more belligerent, and Washington appears increasingly fearful that he could use a nuclear weapon short of an existential threat. On Wednesday, the New York Times reported that in the early days of the invasion, the White House gathered a “Tiger Team” to come up with possible responses in case Putin decides to use biological, chemical, or nuclear weapons.
While the world draws closer to nuclear war than it has in decades, perhaps ever, Russia’s aggression in Ukraine has given lawmakers a unique opportunity to scrutinize the massive nuclear modernization effort currently underway in the U.S. — the largest since the Cold War. But last week, when Congress announced most of its appointees to a new commission designed to do just that, it was business as usual. A former senator-turned-defense contractor lobbyist and a senior executive for BP were among the picks. As these commissioners consider nuclear modernization efforts and the very role of arms control, they’ll have the ear of lawmakers and get access to information and statistics from the Defense Department, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and other government agencies.
“Russia’s unprovoked and senseless war in Ukraine has brought home the risks of nuclear escalation,” Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., co-chair of the Nuclear Weapons and Arms Control Working Group, wrote Tuesday in a statement to The Intercept. “This moment calls for restraint, not overkill. The 2009 Perry-Schlesinger Commission largely rubberstamped the nuclear weapons status quo. The purpose of the committee should be to yield saner nuclear policy, so it’s vital that any potential conflicts of interest are divulged before work begins.” (The 2009 commission marked the last time Congress launched such a review of U.S. nuclear weapons policy.)
Authorized by the annual defense bill signed into law in December, the new commission in theory will assess “the benefits and risks associated with the current strategic posture and nuclear weapons policies of the United States” and make recommendations to Congress, though it doesn’t have a mandate to dictate policy or budgets. It’s also not likely to seriously interrogate the U.S.’s current nuclear structure. The commission won’t have the funding to contract outside studies to substantiate its assessment, House Armed Services Committee spokesperson Caleb Randall-Bodman told The Intercept on Wednesday. The Biden-led Defense Department has already neglected an independent technical study of the current intercontinental ballistic missile system’s future viability, drawing the ire of Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., in a hearing earlier this month.
“Over the past year, the Pentagon has repeatedly pushed out and obstructed efforts to have more rigorous debates and analysis to support [the Nuclear Posture Review],” Warren said, referring to a Pentagon-driven strategic document that the White House will soon release. She pointed directly to the overlooked assessment of the ICBM program, adding: “No matter what you believe about [nuclear] weapons, our nuclear policy should be developed by asking tough questions, not formulated in an echo chamber.”
Rather than soliciting independent, scientific analysis, the commission’s review will instead be entirely in the hands of its 12 members. To lead the group, the highest-ranking Democrats and Republicans on the House and Senate Armed Services committees each got two picks, and each party’s leader in the two chambers got one. So far, all except the choice of House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., have been announced.
Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, selected two people with deep ties to the defense industry. Former Republican Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona has lobbied for Northrop Grumman, the main contractor for the new B-21 bomber and ICBM system, and Qualcomm, an information technology vendor for the Defense Department, lobbying records show. He’s also a standard hawk: While serving in the Senate in 2018, Kyl wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post advocating for the development of so-called low-yield nuclear weapons. Experts warn that these weapons reduce the threshold for nuclear use, and their proliferation in Russia — which has a larger, though still comparable, stockpile than the U.S. — has spread fears about an escalation in Ukraine.
Inhofe’s other pick, Lisa Gordon-Hagerty, is an executive at Westinghouse Electric Co., a government contractor working on nuclear energy projects. During the previous administration, she was appointed head of the Energy Department’s National Nuclear Security Administration by former President Donald Trump.
The appointment of retired Gen. John Hyten, by Senate Armed Services Committee Chair Jack Reed, D-R.I., looms large over the commission. Hyten was the head of U.S. Strategic Command, which oversees the U.S. nuclear arsenal, and then vice chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff until November 2021. During this time, he was an outspoken advocate of maintaining the “nuclear triad” — the three-pronged layout of the U.S.’s nuclear force posture, consisting of land-based missiles (ICBMs), submarines, and bomber aircraft. Hyten also promoted the replacement program for the current ICBM system, meeting with Northrop Grumman last year to find ways to bring down the new version’s cost, a point of contention for critics. Reed’s other pick, Madelyn Creedon, is a former National Nuclear Security Administration official who now runs the Green Marble Group, a consulting firm for the “national security community with emphasis on nuclear, space, and countering weapons of mass destruction,” according to her LinkedIn profile.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., selected Robert Scher, a senior Defense Department official during the Obama administration who is now head of international affairs at BP. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., picked another high-ranking former Defense Department official, Frank Miller, a principal at the international business consultancy Scowcroft Group, where he “provides clients both strategic and tactical advice on defense, national security, foreign affairs, and intelligence policy,” according to the firm’s website.
The commission does include some skeptics of the current nuclear modernization track.
Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, chose Rebeccah Heinrichs and Marshall Billingslea, both senior fellows at the right-wing Hudson Institute, which is funded by Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and other defense contractors. In an article the Hudson Institute published in October, Heinrichs argued against the idea of a no-first-use or single-purpose nuclear weapons policy and pushed the hawkish view that supposed underinvestment in modernization weakens deterrence against nuclear use. Billingslea, meanwhile, was Trump’s arms control envoy in the State Department. In that role, he sought but failed to reach an agreement with Russia to extend the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or New START, which limits the number of deployed nuclear warheads and other systems. He argued for the U.S. to continue its status quo, stating in May 2020: “U.S. deterrent modernization goes hand-in-hand with arms control.”
The commission does include some skeptics of the current nuclear modernization track, like Leonor Tomero, the pick of House Armed Services Committee Chair Adam Smith, D-Wash. Tomero briefly served in Biden’s Defense Department overseeing nuclear deterrence policy, but her appointment led to a revolt from hawks and she was ultimately forced out in a reorganization.
In addition to Tomero, Smith appointed Rose Gottemoeller, chief negotiator of New START with Russia during the Obama administration, who’s now a lecturer in international security and cooperation at Stanford University. The appointee of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., is former Defense Department official Gloria Duffy, an arms control advocate who worked in the 1990s to remove nuclear weapons from former Soviet nations, including Ukraine. Creedon, one of Reed’s picks, also pushed back on the Trump administration’s policy to expand the U.S.’s arsenal of low-yield nuclear weapons, arguing in an article for Arms Control Today that it could risk “nuclear war-fighting.”
The commission’s primary assignment is to release a final report later this year detailing its recommendations for U.S. nuclear policy. Given the group’s makeup, many in the arms control and disarmament community are skeptical that it will recommend any serious reduction to the U.S. nuclear arsenal.
“Having members like Leonor, Rose, Madelyn, and Gloria Duffy (Pelosi’s appointee) in the mix will be useful for including non-traditional thinking on the issues, but most of the other appointees are very establishment or explicitly pro-nukes/anti-arms control and that counterbalance will likely lead to a moderated document,” Monica Montgomery, advocacy coordinator for the Council for a Livable World, wrote in a statement to The Intercept.
“To me this seems like an effort to build bipartisan consensus around military posture at the highest, most general level,” wrote Emma Claire Foley of Global Zero to The Intercept. “Given the influence of the Russian invasion of Ukraine especially, we probably won’t see any substantial shift in the direction of reducing nuclear risk, and I imagine the results will support defense budget increases, as we’ve seen from the Biden administration for two years now.”
“This seems like an effort to build bipartisan consensus around military posture at the highest, most general level.”
The timing of the commission also means that whatever conclusions it does reach will likely have little impact on official U.S. nuclear weapons policy. When Congress last established this type of group, it did so early in the Obama administration so that its recommendations could influence the president’s Nuclear Posture Review. This time around, the commission is just getting started, while Biden’s nuclear strategy is all but complete, slated for imminent release.
Reed told The Intercept that the group will instead take a retroactive look at Biden’s Nuclear Posture Review, providing comments on “pluses and minuses, what more we could do, what are key issues that might have been overlooked.” In terms of impact, he said the commission will “inform policy decisions and budget decisions” and highlighted its importance in regard to Russia and China, stating: “We’re on the verge for the first time in the history of the world of having a trilateral nuclear competition.” (Researchers have found that Russia and the U.S. have comparable stockpiles — the former retains about 4,500 warheads while the latter has about 3,700. China has about 350, though the Pentagon has claimed that Beijing is rapidly expanding its arsenal.)
“If Congressional leaders were sincere about their stated desire to ‘examine the long-term strategic posture of the United States,’ they would hold a series of public hearings to do so,” Joe Cirincione, a nuclear nonproliferation advocate with the Quincy Institute, told The Intercept in a written statement. “There has not been a serious hearing with contrasting views on nuclear policy in Congress in decades.”
“So, it’s not a game changer,” he said of the commission. “The game is rigged.”