Competing groups of senators are laying out arguments in what's likely to be the biggest defense budget issue facing the next administration and Congress: how much to spend on nuclear arms.
The groups made their respective cases in dueling letters to the Obama administration, which is said to be weighing both scaling back a planned modernization of the nuclear arsenal and a set of a revisions to U.S. nuclear policy. Regardless what President Barack Obama proposes, the next commander in chief and future congresses will be the ones to ultimately resolve these questions.
At issue is upwards of $1 trillion in new spending over the coming decade to replace aging aircraft, missiles, submarines and warheads and to upgrade infrastructure. Also up for discussion are matters such as whether the United States should pledge not to be the first to use nuclear weapons or should take its atomic missiles off hair-trigger alert status.
A draft of the Democratic party platform approved this week at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia advocates controlling spending on nuclear weapons and being less dependent on them, a position that is closer to the anti-nuclear senators' view than to that of Kaine and his camp.
The platform calls for "reducing our reliance on nuclear weapons while meeting our national security obligations. Democrats will also seek new opportunities for further arms control and avoid taking steps that create incentives for the expansion of existing nuclear weapons programs. To this end, we will work to reduce excessive spending on nuclear weapons-related programs that are projected to cost $1 trillion over the next 30 years."
Obama's national security team is considering not going forward with a new air-launched nuclear cruise missile called the Long Range Standoff and may make policy changes, too, according to published reports.
But on July 8, a bipartisan group of 14 senators wrote Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter requesting he continue support for "robust" spending on the so-called triad of nuclear weapons -- on land, at sea and in the air.
The senators cited the importance of moving ahead with the B-21 bomber and Ohio-class replacement submarines, now under development, plus new warheads. They put special emphasis on going forward with two programs that are not yet in development, the cruise missile and a new intercontinental ballistic missile now known as the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent.
"We are grateful for your past support in the effort to modernize the triad, and we hope you can reassure us of the Department's support for the ongoing modernization agenda," the senators wrote.
The signatories were Republicans John Hoeven of North Dakota, Steve Daines of Montana, Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, Marco Rubio of Florida, David Vitter of Louisiana, John Barrasso of Wyoming, Deb Fischer of Nebraska and Democrats Kaine, Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Mark Warner of Virginia, Martin Heinrich of New Mexico, Jack Reed of Rhode Island and Jon Tester of Montana.
Nearly all those senators represent states where nuclear weapons or their delivery vehicles are based, commanded or built.
"This is a battle over pork, not a security question," said Stephen Young, an analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists, an arms control group.
Ten senators in the Democratic caucus shot back, in effect, in a July 20 letter to the president.
"Among the steps we urge you to consider are scaling back excessive nuclear modernization plans, adopting a policy of no-first-use of nuclear weapons, and canceling launch on warning plans," the senators wrote. "All of these options would bolster U.S. national security and advance the commitment you made in 2009 in Prague to 'reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy.'"
The anti-nuclear senators took particular aim at the proposed new cruise missile, which they called "an unnecessary capability that could increase the risk of nuclear war."
The signatories were Democrats Edward J. Markey and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Al Franken of Minnesota, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer of California, Jeff Merkley of Oregon, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, Ron Wyden of Oregon, plus Independent Bernie Sanders of Vermont.