The US would redeploy tactical nuclear weapons to the Asia-Pacific and ask regional allies to host nuclear weapons in plans added to the draft Pentagon budget.
Nuclear weapons would be positioned on US and voluntary allied bases as a deterrent against North Korea, Iran and reassure allies against any belligerent or rogue nation in the Asia-Pacific.
The request from the House Armed Services Committee was added to the 2013 National Defence Authorisation Act
(NDAA) yesterday and is expected to pass the Republican-controlled House of Representatives next week.
If the measure survives in the final version of the NDAA, and is not vetoed by President Barack Obama, then formal plans and costings will drafted by the Pentagon for consideration after the 2012 election.
The measure does not address whether Australia would be asked to host nuclear weapons or allow vessels with nuclear weapons to dock. PACOM, the US Pacific command, has placed great importance on the new US Marine training facility in Darwin, and all regional bilateral agreements will be examined as part of the initial report.
Representative Trent Franks says the measure "does not force our nuclear weapons on anyone. It just asks if our alliances would be strengthened with the use of nuclear weapons in the region. If China is concerned about our presence in the region it is very simple they can stop supporting North Korea and get tough on the Kim Jong-un administration.
"They [China] are not just financing North Korea, they’re directly supporting North Korea’s nuclear program. Consequently it has come time for us as a nation to look to our deterrent and look to our allies to make sure we’re doing everything necessary to defend ourselves against any future belligerence or future threats from North Korea."
The Democrat minority unsuccessfully tried to press for nuclear reduction. Representative Adam Smith said the US already had a robust presence in the Pacific. "Putting into legislation the notion that it would be helpful to the region to deploy tactical nuclear weapons to the Asian region is just completely wrong," he said. "If anything that will ramp up the temperature and create a greater likelihood of problems in the region not less."
It has been 21 years since the US last deployed tactical nuclear weapons to Asia, a long-time HASC staff member told Crikey
The US Navy already has "fearsome" Ohio-class submarines on permanent patrol in the Pacific as well as cruisers and destroyers with the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defence System protecting the US west coast.
A similar missile defence shield for the US east coast is funded in the draft NDAA, ostensibly in case of a nuclear threat from Iran. Those plans were mocked in the US media
earlier this week as the rebirth of the unsuccessful Star Wars program.
War drum rhetoric was ramped up in recent months with debate dominated by the Republican presidential nomination process. Former candidate Rick Santorum made pre-emptive strikes against Iran a key part of his campaign platform. Likely nominee Mitt Romney said Obama’s diplomacy had "emboldened" North Korea and he has expressed concern about China’s military. Almost all candidates, except Ron Paul, sought to increase national defence spending.
Republican legislators have adopted the similar concerns. Despite an automatic $500 billion cut to the Pentagon budget scheduled to take effect at the beginning of 2013 unless savings targets are met, the House version of the draft NDAA instead increases military spending.
This version of the NDAA also includes spending on new warfare technology like pain rays and active denial systems designed for use against civilian populations. Social issues were also touched on, with Republicans banning gay troops from marrying on base facilities and protecting anti-gay religious speech in the military workplace.
The annual NDAA has played a key role in the brinksmanship politics in Congress in recent years, and is likely to feature heavily in the presidential campaign.