It has been only a few weeks since the Pentagon launched a review of the U.S. nuclear posture — an examination of programs and policies that will guide the Trump administration’s strategy and budget proposals.
“It is not a moment too soon,” said Vice Admiral Charles Richard, deputy commander of U.S. Strategic Command.
Speaking May 2 at a forum hosted by the Mitchell Institute on Capitol Hill, Richard issued a stark warning: The United States for years has de-emphasized the role of nuclear weapons in its national security strategy, whereas “our adversaries have done exactly the opposite.”
STRATCOM officials have been staunch proponents of the modernization of the U.S. nuclear triad of Air Force Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles, strategic bombers and Ohio-class submarines armed with ballistic missiles. Richard said he expects the nuclear posture review to call for a full recapitalization of the nation’s aging nuclear forces. It is imperative to modernize, Richard said, because Russia and China are not sitting still.
Roadblocks do lie ahead, however. As is the case with any big-ticket weapons programs, the cost of nuclear force modernization will make for a contentious Congressional debate when the Trump administration rolls out its budget proposal.
Cost projections from think tanks and watchdog groups have been wide-ranging, from $400 billion to more than $1 trillion over the next decade to recapitalize the triad. Cost estimates vary largely depending upon how many decades of modernization are included as well as adjustments for increased annual industry costs. However, the overall costs even at the peak modernization level are affordable said the Admiral.
Richard said the Joint Chiefs of Staff estimate it will cost about 6.5 percent of the defense budget to “modernize everything.” That compares to about 4.4 percent of the defense budget that the United States spends on the nuclear triad today. This is not a decision that can be delayed much longer, said Admiral Richard. “You recapitalize your strategic forces basically every other generation. This is an every 40 or 50-year decision that the nation faces.”
The United States is confronting “nuclear capable competitors that are well advanced themselves on nuclear modernization,” Richard insisted.
Russia is a top concern. The country is investing in new land-based missiles, submarines along with submarine-launched ballistic missile, and a new cruise missile said Richard. “They’re putting cruise missiles on pretty much everything.” They also are upgrading their command-and-control systems, he added. “I could run down a similar list for the Chinese. This is the competition that we’re in today.”
Strategic deterrence requires the U.S. military to “stay ahead of the pace of change we see in our adversaries,” he said. “To remain effective, they need to know that our nuclear triad is reliable and ready.”
The triad should be the “primary focus on all deterrence modernization efforts,” Richard stressed. “Our land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, sea-based ballistic missile submarines, and nuclear-capable heavy bombers are the essential deterrent components and stabilizing force in today’s security environment.”
Opponents of nuclear modernization have argued that deterrence could be achieved with a smaller force and that it is not clear why all three legs of the triad must be recapitalized at once. Richard recalled that his boss, Air Force Gen. John Hyten, told lawmakers that deciding which leg should be funded would be like choosing among one’s children.
“The ICBMs are the most responsive,” said Richard. “Our submarines are the most survivable. Our bombers are the most flexible. All are operating beyond their designed service life, and each element is essential to the strategic security of the United States.”
STRATCOM worries about the possibility that Washington politics and budget battles will keep modernization on hold. Any recapitalization program delay, Richard said, “will impact the execution of our strategic deterrence mission and degrade our ability, and ultimately our credibility, to deter.”
Richard also offered a strong rationale for one of the most controversial nuclear modernization programs, the Long Range Stand-Off cruise missile. The Air Force is seeking to start development of the LRSO to replace aging nuclear-tipped air-launched cruise missiles. But the program is facing headwinds in Congress as critics warn it could be mistaken for a conventional missile and increase the risk of an accidental nuclear war.
The current air-launched cruise missile was designed in the ‘70s and fielded in the ‘80s, Richard said. It was a “remarkable weapon” because it could penetrate air defenses in a way that nothing else at the time could. “We instantly ‘obsoleted’ an enormous Soviet investment in air defense.” Significantly complicating the obstacles facing any adversary benefits deterrence.
The attributes of the ALCM (Air-launched cruise missile) are still valid today, he said, and “all we’re doing with the Long Range Stand-Off cruise missile is to just update the technology so we can continue to have that capability in our inventory for all the same reasons that we got it in the first place.”
In addition to platforms and the weapons, nuclear modernization plans have to include a modern command-and-control system, Richard said. “Our nuclear deterrent is only as effective as the command and control networks that enable it to function. So those systems must be assured, reliable and resilient.”
The United States now must decide how serious it is about its commitment to nuclear deterrence, Richard said. “The alternative is unilateral disarmament. … If you were to ask General Hyten what keeps him awake at night, what is his greatest concern, he would tell you it’s that we can’t change fast enough to keep up with the competitions that we’re in.”
Richard declined to speculate on specific outcomes of the nuclear posture review, which could last six months. “It is going to look at our national policy, what capabilities we need. … I look forward to the results.” Moreover, he added, “I don’t predict Super Bowls, and I probably shouldn’t be trying to describe where the NPR is going to go.”