In December 2010, a deal was struck between the US Senate and the Obama administration to finalize funding for the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) and the nation’s warhead production laboratories and support facilities. Together with previous funding by Congress, the US adopted a nuclear modernization strategy that included four elements: (1) three new replacement legs of the US nuclear TRIAD; (2) an upgrade and sustainment of the US nuclear warhead production complex; (3) a cyber resistant nuclear command and control technology; and (4) sustainment and maintenance resources to ensure the continued credibility of our aging legacy nuclear forces.
Over the 12 years since, Congress has appropriated $475 billion to rebuild our nuclear deterrent, with the fiscal year 2022 budget of $51 billion including the Department of Defense and Department of Energy’s NNSA. This modernization effort is the first recapitalization of the US nuclear deterrent in four decades, an historically unprecedented pause in acquiring needed nuclear forces.
As a result, US legacy forces are aging, with intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) averaging 49 years of age, submarines (42 years) and bombers (50 years) kept in the force far beyond their original projected lifetimes. A combined effort (that can be described as nothing short of heroic) by the US Air Force, US Navy and defense industry has, however, kept the nuclear deterrent credible, although these sustainment costs are some two-thirds of all the annual nuclear funding including rebuilding our nuclear command and control capabilities, providing a life extension for the warheads in the nation’s inventory, and maintenance of the US force structure of nuclear capable bombers, ICBMs, SLBMs and submarines.
Triad or no Triad?
Members of the new Congress need to understand that opponents of nuclear modernization efforts make two major claims and invoke two adopted narratives. The two claims are: (1) The 2010 funding deal initiated an unnecessary arms race and is unaffordable; and (2) the US can unilaterally deploy at least one-third fewer warheads than allowed by the New START treaty and safely ensure deterrence by unilaterally eliminating funding for the new Sentinel ICBMs and their associated warheads.
As for narratives, opponents of nuclear modernization have pursued from the breakup of the Soviet Union and its empire a “reset” of relations with Russia that would allow US military spending to decline, especially resources dedicated to nuclear capabilities. Assumptions were adopted that turned out to be widely off the mark – especially that Russia was no longer an enemy or adversary but a “competitor” uninterested in militarily challenging the United States or its allies. Even more off the mark was an additional adopted narrative that bought into the Chinese self-definition of its growing economic and military power as a gentle “peaceful rise.”
Modernization or Not?
Following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, American military and security strategy focused almost exclusively on terrorist threats. This led to dual wars in Afghanistan and Iraq lasting decades. By 2010 when the NNSA nuclear modernization deal was put together by Senator Jon Kyl (R-AZ) and James Miller of the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the US had neglected its nuclear forces to such an extent that one US Air Force general quipped the US had gone on an extensive “nuclear acquisition holiday from history.”
The US now faces sustaining very old legacy nuclear forces as noted above. Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) of the Senate Armed Services Committee explained that delaying the modernization of any element of the nuclear enterprise risks our nuclear deterrent becoming unworkable, what former House Armed Services Committee (HASC) staffer Clark Murdock described as “rusting to obsolescence.”
Not modernizing, however unintended, is a choice literally to get out of the nuclear business, what Admiral Charles Richard, Commander of US Strategic Command, called the “Or Else” dilemma. American military planners do not know whether our nuclear platforms of land- and sea-launched intercontinental ballistic missiles, bombers, cruise missiles or submarines, will last beyond their currently scheduled replacement, especially because all elements now in the force have been in service much longer than expected.
In short, advocating a slowdown in modernization and continued life extensions of existing systems threatens the consequence of the US falling off the nuclear cliff when suddenly the top military commanders cannot certify to the president that our deterrent requirements can be met.
The choice then is between modernization now or getting out of the nuclear business. Without nuclear forces, the US would still be in a world in which Russia, China, and North Korea have thousands of nuclear weapons aimed at America’s heartland. Hardly a reassuring position.
Arms Control and Arms Racing
The modernization of US nuclear forces does not initiate an arms race; does not sustain an excess number of nuclear warheads; and if anything may not be sufficient to deter both Russia and China toward the end of this decade or before.
Between 1992-97, in large part due to the START I and START II treaties signed by President George H. W. Bush and Russian President Boris Yeltsin, the US unilaterally stopped production of our Ohio Class nuclear missile submarines, our Peacekeeper ICBMs, and the B-2 bomber, bringing to a dead stop any further modernization of our nuclear TRIAD.
The US, also through a presidential initiative, unilaterally eliminated thousands of land- and sea-based theater or short-range nuclear forces from Europe and Asia, although no treaty required America to do so. Part of the thinking was to set an example for Russia to gather up and eliminate the tens of thousands of Soviet-era theater nuclear forces American experts worried might be going on a “a walk-about” and disappear into the hands of terrorists.
An entire program—Nunn-Lugar—was put together to eliminate these nuclear forces, including those dismantled by Moscow as a result of the START arms control process. Unfortunately, the promised reductions in theater nuclear forces never materialized on the Russian side, as Moscow now maintains anywhere from a 4-to-10-fold advantage over the United States in this area.
Even worse, the Russian Duma in 1999 decided not to ratify the START II treaty, and therefore its critically important ban on multiple warhead land-based missiles did not take effect. Since land-based missiles are on alert at a 99 percent rate, they can be launched suddenly from a “peaceful” day-to-day status without warning.
Hundreds of such Russian missiles held thousands of warheads during the Soviet era, sufficient to raise serious concerns that a “window of vulnerability” was opening, putting at risk entire elements of the US nuclear deterrent. Part of President Ronald Reagan’s solution to that open window was to fully modernize the US nuclear forces, even as we sought marked reductions through arms control including a ban on multiple warheads on land-based missiles. Washington also sought to build effective missile defenses, and ultimately to bring down the Soviet empire. The US did achieve the collapse of the Soviet Union and get arms reductions. Moscow and Washington cut deployed strategic long-range nuclear forces roughly 90 percent under START I and the subsequent Moscow (2002) and New START (2010) agreements.
Despite these reductions, Russia deploys hundreds of multiple warhead land-based missiles and, with its open production lines, can add to its already formidable nuclear arsenal. This instability is compounded by the difficulty under the New START treaty counting rules to verify that Russia has only the 1,550 warheads START allows.
Added to the Russian danger is China, undertaking what Admiral Richard describes as a “breathtaking” expansion of its nuclear forces. These include 360 new ICBM silos being constructed in western China.
Doubters of China’s nuclear building effort first claimed the silos were for wind farms, although the diameter (10 feet) and spacing (miles apart) of the “silos” were not wind farm compatible. Doubters then claimed the new missile silos would be filled with dummy missiles to draw US firepower and to ensure the real missiles would survive.
But as noted nuclear expert and long-time former Office of the Secretary of Defense official Mark Schneider explains, the Chinese already have highly survivable rail mobile ICBMs that are hidden in mountain tunnels. The new silos, says Schneider, are “first strike” weapons for China, a threat that some US military commanders have likened to that posed by Soviet-era ICBMs.
Threats Require a US TRIAD
Although US-Russia arms control has cut countable strategic nuclear weapons by (an assumed) 90 percent, the remaining nuclear threats are serious and, in the view of most members of Congress, play a key role in their continued support for the US nuclear TRIAD.
James Howe and Rick Fisher, two top nuclear experts on Russia and China, respectively, explain the U.S could in the future be facing a combined 8,000-plus warheads aimed at our heartland. Right now, if we fully loaded our new Columbia class submarine-based missiles (192) and our Sentinel land-based missiles (400), the US could deploy roughly 2,736 “fast flying” missile warheads, but it would still take approximately four years to get to that expanded level, according to General Frank Klotz, USAF (ret.), a former commander of USAF Global Strike Command and then NNSA Administrator.
The ICBM Fight
If the US had no ICBMs, as Senator Edward Markey (D-MA) and Representative John Garamendi (D-CA) have proposed, the maximum submarine missile warheads we could deploy would be 1,536, not appreciably different than the 1,490 ICBM and SLBM (Submarine Launched Ballistic Missile) warheads the US is allowed under New START but leaving the US with no hedge with which to build up. This fact contributed heavily to Garamendi’s June 16, 2022 amendment to kill ICBMs failing 309 to 118 in the House. One top sympathetic arms control group described the measure as “getting clobbered.”
The option of building more submarines is available, but the added submarines would have to come into the force post-2042 when the current planned submarine construction program is completed. While previous Nuclear Posture Reviews by successive administrations have left open that possibility, the US could not build such submarines sooner unless it builds another shipyard.
Eliminating ICBMs also carries a serious risk of pre-emption or an attack on all US nuclear capabilities to the point at which the US effectively is disarmed. General Larry Welch, USAF (ret.), former Chief of Staff and Commander of US Strategic Command, explains that a technology breakthrough whereby the Russians or Chinese could find our submarines deployed at sea would allow our submarines to be “attritted” (eliminated) over time.
Former Secretary of the Navy and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee John Warner told a Capitol Hill audience some years ago that his biggest fear as Navy Secretary was exactly as Welch described. Warner noted “If one of my boomers does not come home, what do I tell the president when asked who did it? And then what do we do with those submarines still at sea?”
Without 400 ICBM silos and the associated 45 launch control centers (and the 50 extra but empty silos the START treaty allows the US to maintain), Russian planners no longer have to worry about more than 500 discrete American nuclear assets that would have to be eliminated if a pre-emptive, disarming first strike were to succeed. With no ICBMs, the US target locus would be two submarine bases, three strategic bomber bases, and about four to six submarines at sea on a day-to-day basis. Or, less than a dozen targets. As General Larry Farrell, USAF (ret.) once told this writer: “Why would we make it easier for Russia to disarm us?”
Restraint or Affording Survival
A final argument made by critics of nuclear modernization, including the heads of the Arms Control Association and Ploughshares, is that unilateral American restraint would, by setting a good moral example, compel Moscow to follow suit and slow down its own modernization, thus ending the current arms race.
As previously noted, Moscow didn’t follow suit when President George H.W. Bush in 1991 eliminated thousands of tactical nuclear weapons. David Trachtenberg of the National Institute of Public Policy (NIPP) also studied this issue and in a 2022 review conclusively proved no US restraint has ever compelled Moscow to stop nuclear construction.
In fact, from 1999 to 2022, Russia developed, built, and deployed upwards of two dozen new types of strategic nuclear weapons systems, to the point Russia is now nearly 90 percent of the way to completing its planned build-up. Moscow’s effort is nearly matched, writes Rick Fisher, author of China’s Military Modernization: Building for Regional and Global Reach, by China’s current nuclear systems now under development and acquisition.
By contrast, the US is scheduled to deploy its new nuclear armed bombers, submarines, and ICBMs in 2029, completing modernization by 2042, at a current cost of $11 billion annually. This is a bargain that General James Mattis, USMC (ret.) and former Secretary of Defense (2017-19) described as “affording survival.”