Authored by Audrey Decker via DefenseOne.com,
Hypersonic missiles and nuclear weapons will get top priority when the House Armed Services committee’s strategic forces panel finally gets to mark up the 2024 defense-policy bill, according to the subcommittee’s chairman.
HASC markups are on hold while GOP lawmakers seek federal budget cuts by threatening to force the U.S. renege on its debts.
Rep. Doug Lamborn, a Republican whose district is based in Colorado Springs, said his biggest concern ahead of the markup, which was supposed to kick off on Thursday, is the top-line number.
Lamborn said he’s “disappointed” the defense policy bill is delayed but “understands” why Congress needs to concentrate on the debt ceiling first.
“Getting that top-line number, I think, is critical because if that number is reduced as part of a negotiation with the Senate and the White House, I would be very concerned that that would lead to cuts in capabilities in the future,” he told Defense One in an interview.
A GOP-forced default on outstanding debts would hurt national security in various ways, according to a host of leaders, including the defense secretary, Joint Chiefs chairman, the director of national intelligence, the Air Force secretary, and more.
If the Pentagon’s top-line number does change, Lamborn said he’s confident programs in the strategic forces portfolio would be in a safe position as “everyone involved” is aware of the need for the Space Force to be fully funded. However, the committees that focus on bigger items, like ships, aircraft, and munitions, might run into some problems, he said.
“Because we have consensus in the community and with the administration, and I think even the Senate, I think the Space Force is in a good position,” Lamborn said.
As chairman of the committee, Lamborn said his top priority is the Pentagon’s hypersonics programs. The pace of development is “way too slow,” and he’s looking to increase funding in the defense policy bill, the National Defense Authorization Act, for “different testing capabilities and facilities” to hopefully accelerate schedules, Lamborn said.
In addition to offensive hypersonic missiles, Lamborn said his committee is adding language calling for a “very active” and robust schedule to field systems that can defend against hypersonics.
The Pentagon confirmed last week that Ukraine recently used a Patriot missile system to take out a Russian hypersonic missile, the Kinzhal.
However, Lamborn said the scenario in Ukraine doesn’t mean the U.S. could do the same against a Chinese hypersonic missile.
“Russia has a history of exaggerating their capabilities. It may have been a primitive—that is, an older-generation hypersonic weapon that a Patriot would be fully capable of intercepting,” he said.
Another priority for the chairman is keeping the Pentagon’s nuclear triad—bombers, submarines, and intercontinental ballistic missiles—on track. There’s concern that “we’re starting to lose the cushion that we have in any of these programs,” Lamborn said.
A major problem for U.S. nuclear programs is plutonium-pit production, Lamborn said. Plutonium pits are part of the fission-fusion chain that creates a thermonuclear explosion.“I’m concerned that we have some possible delays coming up in pit production. And I know that the people running different aspects of the program have contingency plans in place, but I hope it doesn’t come to the point where we have to start looking at contingencies,” he said.
While Congress monitors the Pentagon’s nuke programs, Lamborn said there will be bipartisan agreement in the NDAA to keep funding research and development for the Navy’s nuclear Sea-Launched Cruise Missile, despite multiple attempts from the Biden administration to kill the program, with the goal of “ultimately fielding SLCM-N.”
For the committee’s space portfolio, Lamborn said he’s focused on ensuring that the Space Force has the “maximum launch capacity as a country that we can, both in the short term and long term.”
Now three years since the Space Force was created, Lamborn said he’s happy with the newest service’s progress but there’s “a little ways to go” as he’s heard complaints from industry that there’s still too much red tape when a company wants to work with the Space Force.
Lawmakers are also “very frustrated” with the service’s overclassification of information, Lamborn said, which makes it difficult to share information with the government, industry, partners and allies—and explain the Space Force’s “critical needs” to the public.
It’s hard to legislate a cultural change, but “the next best thing we can do is to highlight the need to be more open while walking that fine line of not divulging proprietary information to the other side,” he said.