Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Harker came under fire this week in Congress for his decision to defund the Navy’s nuclear cruise missile program, including accusations that he weakened President Biden’s position ahead of a summit Wednesday with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Mr. Harker communicated his decision to cut the $5.2 million nuclear-armed, sea-launched cruise missile program in a June 4 memo citing tradeoffs for “developing next-generation capabilities.”
Rep. Mike Turner, Ohio Republican, pressed Mr. Harker on the decision when he appeared before an Armed Services Committee budget panel.
“Are you aware as you were drafting this memo that the president of the United States is sitting down with Vladimir Putin this very month and that all the headlines today … indicate that arms control negotiations is one of those subject matters?” Mr. Turner asked. “Do you realize the extent to which you have undermined President Biden and the United States in indicating a weapon system that is nuclear is going to be unilaterally defunded without any negotiation or without receiving any concessions from Russia?”
The weapon system, which was recommended following the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review in response to Russia’s increased investment in tactical nuclear weapons, would provide the chain of command with a mobile, regional response to intermediate-range nuclear threats. Research and development were to begin next year.
Mr. Harker responded to the barrage of questions with “yes” and “no” answers, and he was interrupted more than once by Mr. Turner when he attempted to elaborate.
“Mr. Harker, there are a lot of people on this committee who are staunch advocates against unilateral disarmament,” Mr. Turner said at the Tuesday hearing. “We’re big fans of arms control negotiations, where we actually get something for what we’re doing.”
Mr. Turner said Mr. Harker, who previously served as the acting Pentagon comptroller, did not have the authority or expertise to make a unilateral decision of that magnitude.
Chief of Naval Operations, Adm. Michael Gilday, who was also a witness at the hearing, said that he was not brought in during the decision.
Last week, Secretary of Defense Loyd Austin and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Mark A. Milly both testified that they, too, were not informed of Mr. Harker’s decision.
Mr. Turner asked Mr. Harker directly whether he had the requisite experience to make the decision. Mr. Harker replied that he did not, and he said that he did not discuss the decision with others in the Pentagon before issuing the memo.
Mr. Harker said the memo offered preliminary guidance and reflected a decision made based on timing within the budget process, pending the completion of the Defense Department’s ongoing Nuclear Posture Review.
A spokesperson for Mr. Harker told The Washington Times that the memo was intended to provide “early internal Navy planning guidance” on the FY23 budget.
“As he stated during the hearing, once the Department of Defense’s Global Posture Review, National Defense Strategy, and Nuclear Power Review are complete, updated guidance will be provided to the Department of the Navy. This guidance was not based on the strategic value of the asset, but the internal budget development process,” the spokesperson said.
Mr. Turner said the memo sends the wrong message at a critical time.
“Everyone at the Pentagon needs to understand the severity of the actions that you have taken and its implications on the United States for arms control negotiations and the impact on the president of the United States,” Mr. Turner said. “This is not an accounting decision, Mr. Harker.”