The 40 Year Nuclear Procurement Holiday

The 40 Year Nuclear Procurement Holiday
U.S. Air Force photo/A1C J.T. Armstrong
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Not since the Reagan administration have nuclear weapons been such a politically charged topic. Following significant cuts in nuclear warheads under START I, at the end of the Cold War, and additional U.S. unilateral reductions in theater and strategic nuclear programs, one would be hard pressed to see any mention of nuclear deterrent issues as part of the national discourse on national security.

Fast forward twenty years.

In 2010, the current administration presented the New Start treaty to the U.S. Senate for advice and consent. The deal would reduce U.S. and Russian deployed nuclear warheads from the 2003 Moscow treaty level of 2200 down to 1550, a thirty percent cut. In return, then Senator Jon Kyl, the minority whip, secured a quid pro quo to support a fully modernized nuclear Triad as a companion action. America would reduce but we would modernize.

Fast forward six years.

Critics of nuclear modernization complain it’s too expensive and unnecessary. It is not sufficient that the U.S. has already reduced its nuclear arsenal by seventy percent of START I  levels (1991). Nor that Russia has fielded hundreds more strategic warheads than the U.S. currently maintains and seeks to significantly expand further. Not to mention Russia’s continued threats to use nuclear weapons against the United States and its allies, while the U.S, correctly emphasizes the value of nuclear deterrence to prevent future conflicts.

Is there, therefore, any urgency to proceed with the agreed-upon U.S. nuclear modernization? Or as some critics argue, can we credibly cut back significantly on the modernization plans agreed to in 2010 because Russia’s nuclear weapons are supposedly not new or more capable?  

Where things stand.

Russia will complete full modernization of its submarine, bomber, and land based nuclear forces by 2022. Without arms control limits, it is estimated Russia could field 3000-5000 strategic warheads, significantly above the prescribed 1550 limits of the 2010 New START treaty.

During the same period, the U.S. will not have modernized even one leg of the Nuclear Triad. Worse yet, a decision on the modernization of U.S. land-based nuclear deterrence systems will not be made until 2020. The first new nuclear-capable submarine will not be on patrol until 2031 and the first new nuclear-capable bomber will not be operational until at least 2025.

These facts are undeniable, even by ardent critics of U.S. nuclear modernization efforts. Instead, they argue that our current Triad of nuclear-capable land, air, and sea-based systems are more than adequate for today’s nuclear deterrence.

Critical to this argument is the assertion that while Russia began its modernization plan earlier than the United States, the U.S. systems have greater longevity requiring less frequent modernization efforts. In short, it is argued, our systems don’t need to be replaced or modernized now even though Russia is well along with its current build-up.

Does this argument hold true?

The record belies the critics. The U.S. Navy has delayed the construction of the new Ohio replacement submarine beyond their original plans by four years, and increased the hull life to a record 41 years to accommodate the delay. Reducing the number of deployed nuclear-capable submarines from 12 to 10. As for the submarine-launched D-5 Trident missile, a required service life extension program is being planned due to their being no planned replacement.

The Minuteman III land based nuclear deterrent, first placed in its silos in 1970 is now 46 years old and would not be replaced until 2030 if approved, 60 years later and well beyond life expectancy. The U.S. Air Force had to execute a service life extension program or SLEP including both a GRP (guidance replacement program) and PRP (propulsion replacement program) starting in 1993 and completed in 2010, further delaying needed modernization.  

The third leg of the U.S. nuclear triad, the replacement for the aging B-2 stealth bomber is still facing a budget battle and will still not fill the shortfall created by the cancellation of B-2 production at 21 planes even if the new B-21 comes online in 2025.

All legs of the United States nuclear triad have been remarkably delayed for the last 25 years. This is the procurement holiday has been mentioned repeatedly by the former and current Deputy Chief of Staff of the United States Air Force for Strategic Deterrence and Nuclear Integration, General Garrett Harencak, and General Jack Weinstein, respectively.

Russia has modernized their nuclear deterrence arsenal with regularity, placing the U.S. at a significant deficit. The last two modernization cycles for the U.S. has only been initiated every twenty years. Starting in 1959-62 with the Polaris submarines and Minuteman missiles. Then in 1981-2 with the Trident D-5 missile, the Ohio class submarine, the Peacekeeper missile, and the B-1 and B-2 bombers. Only now is the U.S. planning to begin the third modernization evolution of nuclear systems projected to be operational by 2025 or 2030, taking over 40 years vice 20, twice as long as historical precedent.

Any extension of a procurement holiday for U.S. nuclear deterrence is simply too dangerous. The outgoing head of U.S. Strategic Command, Admiral Cecil Haney, put the dangers bluntly:

“Nuclear modernization is not only necessary to maintain capabilities for today’s threats; it is necessary to ensure we have flexibility and options to address future uncertainty. Failure to modernize and maintain readiness will limit our strategic options in dealing with the span of crises we can expect and those we don’t anticipate.”

He also warned:

“We are fast approaching the point where we will put at risk our safe, secure, effective, and ready nuclear deterrent, potentially jeopardizing strategic stability. We must not let our deterrence capabilities be determined by failure to sustain and modernize our forces.”

The U.S. Nuclear Triad is now being modernized not because we want “shiny new” but because missiles have to maintain their accuracy and operational capability while stealth bombers and submarines must be able to penetrate near pear anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) operating areas. Missile systems do degrade, bomber signatures become observable; and submarine hulls wear-out.

The bad guys do not stand still, Russia’s modernization coupled with that of China is greater in scope than at any time during the Cold War. Russia’s systems are newer and have enhanced capabilities.

Critics complain that Russian systems can’t possibly be all that dangerous relative to the United States. Russia’s warheads, missiles, and submarines are significantly unsafe, in many cases relying on liquid propelled rockets which are difficult and expensive to maintain.The Russians do, however, think numbers matter. Without adequate numbers to suppress Russian defenses and cover key targets, the U.S. will not have the secure retaliatory capability needed for deterrence. Thus the need for a modernized nuclear triad.

Arbitrarily reducing the United States’ nuclear deterrence capability to portray an image of restraint is inconsistent with the history of strategic stability and deterrence. Without the full capability, the Nuclear Triad presents in deterrence could lead to further intractable aggression by adversaries the U.S. fears most.

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