Never Let a Good Crisis Go to Waste

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"Never Let A Good Crisis Go to Waste," a phrase popularized by Rahm Emanuel, has been embraced fully by the Washington-centric U.S. disarmament community during the COVID-19 crisis.  Articles, op-eds, and reports, most notably by the Arms Control Association but also by others1, are raising the “rising human and financial toll” of dealing with the Coronavirus crisis as a reason to back away from the Obama and Trump administrations' plans to modernize America’s aging nuclear forces. Sadly, they surround this call with a body of lies and falsehoods designed to sway public opinion, but which, in reality, are the same arguments they have been making for many years.  Public dialogue and government decision-making need to be based on facts, not on distortions of the truth.  Thus, it becomes necessary to expose the exaggerations and falsehoods for what they are rather than what they purport to be.

The Arms Control Association’s March 19, 2020 polemic qua report2 asserts the following:

 

  • “the projected cost to sustain and upgrade the U.S. nuclear arsenal continues to grow. And grow. And grow some more.”
  • the program “will grow the size of the U.S. nuclear stockpile”
  • “the factors driving NNSA [National Nuclear Security Administration – the Department of Energy sub-unit devoted to warheads] budget growth are unclear."
  • There is "no historical precedent for the NNSA plan to produce 80 pits per year."
  • “The administration inherited a larger and more diverse nuclear arsenal than is required for deterrence…”
  • “…the current approach relies on nuclear warfighting and de-emphasizes stability and survivability."

This alarmist nonsense would draw knowing smiles of disbelief if it originated in Moscow or Beijing.  At least the Russians and Chinese know that they are playing a propaganda game. Instead, it comes from a group of people who have never to pass up the opportunity to use partisan lenses and rhetoric to obscure or ignore basic facts.  Their “answer” to the problem they create includes the following recommendations:

  • Cut the buy of the new Columbia class SSBN from a minimum of twelve boats to ten;
  • Extend the life of the Minuteman force and cut the number of ICBMs to 300;
  • Forego the long-range standoff (LRSO) weapon intended to replace the 1980’s vintage air-launched cruise missile;
  • Scale back plans to modernize warheads for the SLBM and ICBM forces; and
  • Forego the ability to produce new pits for nuclear warheads.

To expose the duplicity in all of this, it is important to examine each of the above flawed assertions and then turn to the shop-worn and dangerous recommendations.

  • First, the projected cost of the modernization program as a percentage of the defense budget is not growing. The 2018 DoD Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) stated that the total cost of the effort to operate the current force and to replace aging systems with new ones – at its peak -- would be between 6-7% of the defense budget (to be absolutely clear, that is 3% to operate and sustain the current force until it is replaced and 3-4% for the modernization effort).  The NPR indicated further that this would amount to less than 1% of the overall Federal Budget.3 Even the Arms Control Association’s own charts indicate that these cost figures remain true today.
  • Second, if the charge is that the overall cost of each program is growing, the proper response, to quote that noted American philosopher and sage Homer Simpson, is “doh!". As programs move from early R&D to advanced R&D, to Low Rate Initial Production, and finally on to full production, costs go up.  That is a fact.  That is how manufacturing works.  There should be no surprise here.  That said, the cost is still within the 6-7% of the defense budget.
  • Third, you can search the 2018 NPR from cover to cover without finding any policy statement which suggests or advocates expanding the U.S. nuclear warhead stockpile. The only place where this point is even addressed concerns the introduction of a small number of low-yield Trident W 76-2 warheads, in which case the NPR is absolutely explicit that this will come at the expense of existing warheads. Put in simple English:  the NPR calls for keeping the stockpile at current levels; it does not call for expanding it.
  • Fourth, there should be no cause for uncertainty about the crying need for increased funding for NNSA. Study after study, and press report after press report, has made clear that many of the facilities which support our nuclear warhead programs are well past their design life. The head of NNSA, Lisa Gordon-Haggerty recently put it this way: “More than half of NNSA’s facilities are over 40 years old, and roughly 30 percent date back to the 1940s”.4 Unlike those who work at the Arms Control Association or other think tanks, many NNSA employees work in places where netting is strung from deteriorating ceilings to catch falling pieces of concrete.
  • Fifth, a simple look at another disarmament website, that of the Federation of Atomic Scientists, indicates that during the Cold War, the U.S. built hundreds and thousands of new warheads every year, each with new pits. So much for “no historical precedent”!
  • Sixth, it is absurd in the extreme for the disarmers to argue that the size of the current arsenal “is more than is required for deterrence”. U.S. policy for decades has focused on holding at risk what potential enemy leaders value.  The warhead mix required to do this changes as the threat changes and as our knowledge of what potential enemy leaders value improves.  It is not a function of round numbers based on multiples of ten.  What the disarmament community is actually calling for is that the U.S. adopt a minimum deterrence policy, in which case it should advocate and defend it in public.  Successive American administrations, both Democrat and Republican, have rejected Minimum Deterrence.  But if that is what the disarmament community wants, let’s have the debate.
  • And finally, there is the old canard, the ever popular bloody flag, that U.S. policy is based on nuclear warfighting, not deterrence. To those of us who have had the privilege and responsibility of formulating and implementing U.S. nuclear deterrence policy, that charge is as insulting as it is totally false. Even a quick look at the 2018 NPR (which, for the record is squarely in the mainstream of longstanding U.S. nuclear deterrence policy) makes this clear.  The NPR speaks to deterrence. It speaks to deterring potential enemies whose force posture and exercises suggest nuclear warfighting. It speaks to raising the threshold for nuclear use.

So much for the ingoing assumptions and assertions.  Now let’s turn to their proposed solutions.

  • First, the idea that the size of the Columbia SSBN class, the future backbone of our deterrent, should be cut betrays either complete dishonesty or total ignorance of industrial reality. Cutting boats 11 and 12 (and possibly 13 and 14) will not solve the fiscal problem the disarmament community has raised because spending on those platforms is many years into the future.  Alternatively, delaying boats 1 and 2 now will be hugely damaging to what General Dynamics/Electric Boat is doing to prepare for building the new SSBNs.  The investment in a new construction hall and in the training and hiring of new skilled workers is not something which can be stopped or started on a whim.  If one did, in addition to causing more economic hardship at a time when jobs are important, the effect would be to add additional cost to the program in the future.  Reality is going to beat errant ideology every time.
  • Second, the idea of extending the Minuteman force has been studied and studied and studied. Extending Minuteman’s life once again would not be either cost effective or militarily effective. The Air Force has shown, and Obama Administration’s OSTP confirmed that MMIII life extension costs essentially the same as building the new ICBM, but the life extended Minuteman would not be capable against next-generation enemy defenses.  If the disarmament community wants to eliminate the ICBM force, let it argue that case (and to be fair, some of them do).  That said, the remainder of the disarmers should not be allowed to hide behind phony engineering. Furthermore, they should not call for force structure cuts, which, while they meet the community’s goal of fewer U.S. systems, have no basis in policy or military operations.  In this context, it is important to recall that -- since the bomber force no longer stands day-to-day alert, eliminating the ICBM force essentially reduces the U.S. strategic posture to a single leg.
  • Third, speaking of the bomber force, eliminating the LRSO also eliminates the B-52s nuclear role, removing in the near term upwards of 600 or more weapons from the force. The absurd notion that nuclear-tipped cruise missiles are destabilizing is a notion unique to American disarmers and certainly is not reflected in Russian or Chinese strategic thought since both countries are deploying new nuclear air-launched cruise missile systems.  Abandoning the LRSO also will condemn the B-2 and the B 21 to fly directly into advanced enemy air defenses which are even now beginning to be deployed: surely an extraordinarily unsound approach to maintaining a viable bomber leg.
  • Finally, calling for a halt to upgrading U.S. ballistic missile warheads and abandoning the ability to build new nuclear pits reveals a gross ignorance of what we have learned through decades of the Stockpile Surveillance Program. Nuclear warheads age. They develop flaws and cracks.  They cannot last forever. If they are not replaced at some point, they will become unreliable.  If they become unreliable, they will have to be removed from service.  If there is no replacement, we will have backed into unilateral disarmament.

Returning to Rahm Emanuel’s dictum, it is irresponsible to permit the disarmament lobby to exploit the COVID-19 crisis.  There is no doubt that the spending associated with ameliorating the effects of the COVID-19 crisis will have significant effects on the entire U.S. Government budget, to include the Defense Department budget.  That fact, however, does not translate into a plausible or compelling argument to further delay or eliminate the modernization of America’s nuclear forces.  There are two principal reasons for this:

  • First, that modernization should have begun in the early 2000s but was deferred by the Bush 43 and Obama Administrations. The delay has placed the United States in a truly critical situation. In April 2016, Admiral Cecil Haney, at the time the Commander of U.S. Strategic Command, issued a stark warning to the House Armed Services Committee  "if you don't proceed with modernization, the U.S. will be out of the nuclear deterrence business with the next decade and a half.”President Obama’s last Secretary of Defense, Ash Carter, repeated and expanded upon that warning in 2017, a point in time when as a private citizen he could say whatever he wanted to and did not have to follow anyone’s policy:

“the Defense Department cannot further defer recapitalizing Cold-War era systems if we are to maintain a safe, secure, and effective nuclear force that will continue to deter potential adversaries that are making improvements in their air defenses and their own nuclear weapons systems. The choice is not between replacing these platforms or keeping them, but rather between replacing them and losing them altogether. The latter outcome would, unfortunately, result in lost confidence in our ability to deter. The United States cannot afford this in today’s security environment or in any reasonably foreseeable future security environment.6  

  • Second, while the United States deferred modernization, Russia and China made massive investments made in their respective nuclear forces over the past ten years.7 Russia is currently deploying three new types of ICBMs, has added a nuclear-tipped boost-glide vehicle to an existing ICBM, has four new SSBNs in the water and four more under construction, is deploying two new types of SLBMs, has re-opened the Blackjack bomber production line and is equipping the Backfire bomber with intercontinental capabilities, and is deploying a new nuclear air-launched cruise missile.  Additionally, Russia is developing an intercontinental nuclear torpedo and has deployed a wide variety of new short-range nuclear weapons.  China has modernized an existing ICBM by equipping it with multiple warheads, is deploying a second new type of ICBM, has six new SSBNs in the water and is beginning to build a new class of SSBNs, has deployed a new type of SLBM and is also developing another new type of SLBM, has equipped its existing bombers with a new air-launched ballistic missile and is on the verge of deploying a new stealth bomber.

Against this background of improved nuclear capabilities by the United States, two potential adversaries, and the growing obsolescence of our own nuclear forces, the modernization of U.S. nuclear forces is truly a national imperative. To those who argue that this modernization should take a backseat to spending on U.S. conventional forces, it is important to remember that the credibility of U.S. conventional forces is built upon the firm foundation of a modern, effective and credible nuclear deterrent.  This was made clear in the 2016 testimony of General Mark Milley when he was the Army Chief of Staff:

“I don’t have a part of the Triad, in a sense, but I can tell you that in my view, in my professional military view, and I am a member of the JCS, the nuclear Triad has kept the peace since nuclear weapons were introduced and have sustained the test of time.”  

Finally, it must be noted that the disarmament community’s call to reduce the U.S. nuclear modernization program paradoxically jeopardizes the achievement of one of the community’s highest priority goals:  achieving a new arms control treaty with Russia and potentially also with China.  To the degree that either Moscow or Beijing has any incentive whatsoever to engage in new negotiations, it is to place constraints on a modernized U.S. arsenal.  If the modernization program is reduced or postponed, that incentive disappears.

COVID-19 has already inflicted significant harm on the United States.  We must not allow it to weaken our ability to deter nuclear attacks against ourselves or our allies.  Based on the facts, modernizing our nuclear forces is essential and must proceed as set forth in the Administration’s programs.


Franklin C. Miller served for decades as a senior policy official in the Defense Department and on the NSC staff.


Notes:

  1. Kingston Reif and Shannon Bugos, “U.S. Nuclear Weapons Budget a Growing Danger," Arms Control Association Issue Brief, March 19, 2020; John Fairlamb, “Excessive nuclear force modernization should be the next COVID-19 victim”, The Hill Online, April 16, 2020; Joseph Cirincione and Zack Brown, “Masks Over Missiles: New Rules for Pentagon Funding Could Mean No New ICBMs," National Interest Online, May 4, 2020; William D. Hartung, “Now isn’t the time to push for nuclear modernization," Defense News, April 21, 2020; Matt Korda, “Congress should Hit Pause on the New Intercontinental Ballistic Missile," Forbes, April 21, 2020; Steven Pifer,  How COVID-19 might affect U.S. nuclear weapons and planning, Brookings Blog Monday, May 18, 2020; James E. Doyle, “How to reduce both nuclear and pandemic threats after COVID-19”, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, May 19, 2020; Connor O’Brien, “Top progressive lawmaker wants to slash new ICBMs for coronavirus relief”, Politico, May 27, 2020
  1. Reif and Bugos, op. cit.
  1. Furthermore, these percentages were measured against the FY 2018 DoD budget and Federal budget (before the sequestration caps were lifted). Both the DoD and Federal budgets have increased since then, so the percentages for operating the current force and replacing it with modern systems will have been reduced.
  1. Testimony Statement of The Honorable Lisa E. Gordon-Hagerty Under Secretary for Nuclear Security and Administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration U.S. Department of Energy Before the House Appropriations Committee Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development March 4, 2020
  1. Admiral Cecil Haney, Testimony before the Strategic Forces Sub-Committee, House Armed Services Committee, February 24, 2016.
  1. “Nuclear Deterrence is still the Bedrock of U.S. Security, Ash Carter, American Interest, Volume 12, Number 6, April 2017)
  1. Hans M. Kristensenand Matt Korda, “Status of World Nuclear Forces”, Federation of Atomic Scientists, April 2020.
  1. Gen Mark Milley U.S. Army, as quoted in, The Fiscal Year 2017 National Defense Authorization Budget Request from the Military Department (Washington, D.C.: Government Publishing Office, March 16, 2016), H.A.S.C. No. 114-111, p. 33, available at https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/CHRG-114hhrg20063/pdf/CHRG-114hhrg20063.pdf.


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