Home inFocus Governing Post-Pandemic (Spring 2021) Nuclear Modernization in an Era of Great Power Competition

Nuclear Modernization in an Era of Great Power Competition

Peter Huessy

America’s nuclear weapons deter attacks on the United States from biological, cyber, conventional, or nuclear weapons. That deterrent capability has kept the nuclear peace for seventy-five years but is now in danger of rusting to obsolescence. Why?

With the dissolution of the Soviet empire, the U.S. kicked the nuclear modernization can down the road, going on what MG Garrett Harencak, USAF (ret.) called a three-decade “nuclear procurement holiday.” Consequently, the U.S. now needs to acquire a new nuclear triad, warhead production complex, and command and control system rapidly and sequentially. The challenge of doing so at “the speed of relevance” over the next 25 years is more daunting than any effort since World War II.

The good news is the modernization plan has been endorsed on a bi-partisan basis under both Presidents Obama and Trump and approved by Congress for 12 consecutive years. That consensus is a national gift that should not be squandered. 

The not-so-good news is that to continue, the U.S. will have to be clear about deterrent funding requirements, understand the threats, avoid adopting untenable options that would cripple the deterrent, and ignore calls for more delay. 

What is Deterrence?

 Nuclear deterrence is the state where an adversary chooses not to attack the United States or our allies because our will to use our military capability can inflict unacceptable costs on them. Our deterrent strategy is carefully crafted, conventional wisdom notwithstanding, and holds at risk an adversary’s military capability without which they cannot achieve their hegemonic objectives.

An LGM-30 Minuteman III missile soars in the air after a test launch at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California (Photo: U.S. Air Force)

How Did We Get Here? 

While the U.S. has been on an extended “nuclear procurement holiday,” the Russians paused only temporarily to comply with START I reductions and regain their economic footing. But since 2004, Russia has completed 90% of its planned acquisition of 22 new types of nuclear-capable cruise, land, and sea-based ballistic missiles, bombers, and submarines. 

The History of Arms Control

Can more arms control rectify the current imbalance of a fully modernized Russian nuclear complex compared to a U.S. nuclear force now older than at any time during the nuclear age? No, it cannot. However, while arms control cannot end the underlying pursuit of hegemonic nuclear objectives by Russia, if done correctly it could help strategic stability by providing transparency about Russian nuclear forces. 

For example, despite the 1972 SALT nuclear arms agreement and a policy of “détente,” Moscow’s long-range strategic nuclear arsenals increased five-fold in the subsequent 15 years to near twelve thousand treaty-compliant warheads. By 1980 Moscow believed the “correlation of forces” had shifted so dramatically it would enable the Soviets to “win” the Cold War. 

Closing the Window of Vulnerability

To remedy this imbalance, in 1981 President Ronald Reagan called for a combined nuclear modernization, and reductions in nuclear weapons. Particularly important was closing the “window of vulnerability,” by securing major reductions in overall nuclear forces and a ban on large, multiple-warhead land-based missiles, the Soviet weapons most capable of carrying out a feared pre-emptive bolt-from-the-blue attack. 

President Reagan also proposed a “zero-zero” option, banning the Soviet SS-20 medium range missiles in Europe and Asia. Originally ridiculed as a “trick,” the deployment of a NATO-approved Pershing and Ground Launched Cruise Missile (GLCM) counter missile deployment, a “peace through strength strategy,” ended the Soviet attempt to intimidate our European NATO allies. The subsequent 1987 Intermediate Forces Treaty (INF) banned such missiles on both sides, the first such agreement in history. 

President Reagan’s larger geopolitical strategy also succeeded, and just four years later the Soviet empire collapsed. With the subsequent signing of the START I (1991) and START II (1993) treaties by President George H.W. Bush, deployed strategic nuclear warheads on both sides were intended to be cut by an unprecedented 70 percent. Reagan’s new and sensible idea worked: you could simultaneously reduce nuclear weapons while modernizing. (While the 1991 START I treaty entered into force, the START II ban on multiple warhead land-based missiles, signed by Presidents Yeltsin and Bush in 1993, was eventually rejected by the Russian Duma.)

In 2002, President George W. Bush first removed the United States from the ABM treaty in order to deploy a missile defense against North Korean missile threats. 

And then the next year, the United States and Russia agreed to the “Moscow Treaty” further reducing deployed strategic nuclear weapons from the START I level of 6000 to 2200, proving you could build defenses while also doing arms control, upending a long-standing disarmament community assumption. 

In 2010, the United States and Russia signed New START, capped Strategic Nuclear Delivery Vehicles (SNDVs), at 700 long-range strategic missiles and bombers, while cutting warheads to a notional 1,550. 

American drafters of New START knew the U.S. required a modern ICBM force of Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) missiles, a fleet of 12 new Columbia class submarines, and a nuclear capable B-21 bomber, along with 40 nuclear capable legacy B-52 bombers for continued deterrence. All of which fit within the constraints of the agreement. 

The Obama administration confirmed the New START framework with Congress in December 2010 in a bipartisan deal with Senator Jon Kyl. In short, while the United States still has the smallest and oldest nuclear deterrent in 60 years, a bipartisan modernization consensus exists to rectify the current geostrategic imbalance. 

Two Choices Ahead

Admiral Charles Richard, Commander of USSTRATCOM, underscored that the United States faces two choices: we either replace our legacy systems with modern deterrent forces, or our forces become obsolete within the next decade. 

Nonetheless, nuclear critics are advocating for major force changes: the unilateral elimination of the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent program; eliminating up to half of our submarines; and ending the bomber cruise missile. If adopted, these measures would unilaterally reduce American SNDVs under New START from 700 to 156, a whopping 80%. The biggest push by disarmers is to eliminate ICBMs. Their argument goes as follows: 

  • The ICBM missiles are in fixed silos. 
  • It is assumed that in a crisis the Russians would attack those locations. 
  • The U.S. might mistakenly cause Armageddon by launching our missiles having assumed a Russian attack is underway.

In fact, in 1980, a training tape used at Strategic Air Command was mistakenly loaded into the early warning system and appeared to show real Soviet missiles headed our way. The disarmers fear that such an error could happen again, and the President might mistakenly assume the Russian strike was real. And if the President was under pressure to launch our ICBMs (“use ‘em or lose ‘em”) there would not be time to determine whether the attack was authentic. The notion then arose that ICBMs are on ‘hair trigger” alert, and vulnerable to launch on warning. 

The real story is that the 1980 alarm was quickly determined to be false, the USAF went back to normal alert levels, but more importantly, a technology fix was instituted to where such a false warning from a training tape is no longer possible. 

Sponge Strategy?

Bound and determined, the disarmers then invented another ICBM ghost story. In this new narrative, our 450 ICBM silos and their 45 launch control centers spread out over tens of thousands of square miles in five midwestern states, are assumed to be strategically irrelevant and nothing but a “giant sponge.” 

If Russia decided to take out America’s nearly 500 ICBM assets, Moscow would need to use upwards of 1000 highly accurate warheads, and thus divert weapons that would otherwise have been used against American cities. 

However, when examined, the narrative falls apart. First what are the chances the Russians would actually attack American ICBM silos? The 2018 Nuclear Posture Review, a 2020 Federation of American Scientist essay, and a 2021 Carnegie Endowment for International Peace publication, all concluded the chances of such an attack are “near zero.” 

Why? As former Air Force Chief of Staff, General David Goldfein explained, the U.S. ICBM force is so broadly spread out that any disarming attack is technically and operationally impossible. In addition, even after such an attack, the U.S. could respond with upwards of a thousand retaliatory warheads from surviving elements of the Triad and destroy most significant vestiges of Russian military power. This makes any such initial Russian nuclear attack suicidal. 

Second, even if you assume the Russians would use 1,000 warheads in a suicidal attack on the U.S. ICBM “sponge,” the Russians retain plenty of additional warheads to incinerate America’s largest cities. Thus, there is no “sponge strategy.” The sponge idea exists only in the fevered imagination of some in the disarmament community.

Does The United States Have Too Many Warheads?

Another disarmament meme – also wrong – is that the U.S. just has too many warheads, as we can destroy most Russian cities with a much smaller force. Since the early 1970s, the United States adopted a “counter-force” deterrent policy where we hold at risk an adversary’s military capability and forces but not their cities. Mutual assured destruction, or “MAD” as it was known, that called for “city busting,” went out the strategy window some half century ago. 

The deterrent policy requirements are not set by the U.S. military but by the President. Military leaders then adopt a strategy to implement those requirements. Today, that strategy holds at risk enemy military targets which, if destroyed, would compel our enemies to stop the fight and the pursuit of their hegemonic objectives. Our deterrent is sized to accomplish that task. 

The U.S. Has to Stop Arms Racing?

But isn’t the U.S. engaging in an arms race by modernizing its nuclear enterprise? Wouldn’t U.S. restraint end the “arms competition.” 

The United States is not in an arms race; Russia and China are. The Russians are building new types of nuclear systems at two-thirds the Cold War rate. While the Chinese are projected to double their nuclear arsenal within this decade. 

Since the inception of New START in 2010, the Russians have deployed 20 new types of nuclear systems including cruise, land-based and sea-based strategic missiles, submarines, and bombers. 

By contrast, the U.S. will not initially deploy a new type of nuclear weapon until 2029. As former Defense Secretary Harold Brown described the arms race and the Soviets: “When we build, they build. And when we stop, they build.” 

Nuclear Threats

What are the major nuclear threats the United States and its allies face? 

First, Russia and China are building up their nuclear forces across-the-board. Second, Russia and China have a militarily cooperative policy, including conducting joint military exercises. Third, and most disquieting, Mr. Putin has adopted an “escalate to win” nuclear strategy, a threat in a crisis or during a conventional conflict to use a limited number of nuclear weapons against the United States to coerce the U.S. to stand down. The Russians, and now increasingly Chinese Communist Party leaders, believe this will succeed, as they assume the United States will not have the stomach to risk, or have the necessary forces to credibly deter, any such threatened escalation.

However, it is important to acknowledge that under a limited strike scenario, all U.S. nuclear forces, including ICBMs, would be available for retaliatory strikes. The Russians and Chinese if contemplating such strikes, would face the full panoply of Americas retaliatory deterrent forces, but credibly available only if acquired in a timely fashion.

Eliminate the GBSD

Minuteman III for the time being remains a credible deterrent. It was upgraded starting in 1995 with a propulsion and guidance replacement program that extended the life of the system through the year 2030. 

Having repeatedly lost the fight to unilaterally eliminate U.S. ICBMs, critics have adopted an interim idea – extend Minuteman III, delay GBSD, and study everything – again. 

Does this make sense? No. 

Admiral Charles Richard, the Commander of U.S. Strategic Command, has explained that Minuteman is old technology that can no longer be replaced. The Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General John Hyten, has said that shortly after 2030, Minuteman will “begin to fall apart.”

General Hyten led requirements when ICBMs were assigned to Air Force Space Command where he examined the issue. He has repeatedly testified before Congress that the Minuteman system cannot be further refurbished, that the 1995-2005 guidance and propulsion replacement program was only designed to give Minuteman an additional 20 years of life. During that extra time, it was assumed the United States would develop and begin to deploy a new land-based missile – which indeed is the current plan approved by Congress. 

Numerous studies by both the U.S. government and outside independent groups have all concluded GBSD is required to sustain credible nuclear deterrence and is the cost-effective choice. Extending the life of Minuteman III – even if possible– makes no sense because it simply cannot provide the required capabilities for a credible nuclear deterrent. 

The GBSD not only meets the deterrent requirements set by U.S. Strategic Command, but the new modular technologies also allow for considerably less required maintenance personnel. This factor alone may eliminate tens of billions of dollars in lifetime costs.

Stability, Hedge Capability, and ICBMS

What if the United States eliminated all ICBMs and if needed, moved all the ICBM warheads to the submarine fleet? 

The United States currently has over 500 nuclear assets with which any potential adversary must contend if contemplating a military conflict with United States. Eliminating the ICBM force would reduce the number of strategic targets an adversary would have to attack to disarm the U.S. from about 500 to 10-13 – three bomber and two submarine bases plus five to eight submarines at sea. 

As former USAF Chief Staff Larry Welch warned, eliminating ICBMs is an open invitation to our enemies to concentrate their technological ingenuity in finding our submarines at sea. Without ICBMs, the potential to pre-emptively disarm the United States of its nuclear capability emerges as a real possibility. 

Former Secretary of the Navy John Warner revealed his biggest fear was if one of our “Boomers” did not come home. He noted further: “How would we even know who took out one of our ballistic missile carrying submarines?” Over time, the entire fleet of submarines could be eliminated.

Former senior OSD official Dr. Brad Roberts underscored this danger. He explained  that conventional wisdom assumes the oceans, unlike the air, space, and land, will never become transparent. Prudence dictates the requirement for a prompt response capability to deter conflicts that only ICBMs can provide, and a smart insurance policy should a technological problem arise with our submarines. 

Even more calamitous, eliminating ICBMs reduces the number of warheads the United States is allowed under New START by 64 percent, leaving the U.S. in a weak position from which to maintain deterrence or negotiate any further arms reductions.

Now why not simply add the 400 ICBM warheads to the submarine missiles to maintain the number allowed by treaty? The U.S. could, in theory, add all 400 ICBM warheads to all 16 missiles deployed on each of 12 Columbia class submarines. The end result would be a submarine fleet maxed out at 1536 warheads, and thus with zero ability to add to the American arsenal. This eliminates any “hedge” or insurance policy to build back up if the strategic environment worsens. 

Is Defense Affordable? 

The final issue raised by critics of nuclear modernization is that it’s “not affordable.” Often relied upon are CBO reports estimating American nuclear modernization costs of $1.2 trillion. To get to that number, CBO: 

  • Estimates costs for three decades. 
  • Includes 100 percent of the bomber costs. 
  • Arbitrarily adds a 3 percent per year cost growth; and
  • Merges legacy system sustainment and new modernization. 

What’s wrong with these numbers? 

  • Congress considers budgets for five-year defense plans or even a ten-year budget window, but not 30 years. Projecting three decades effectively doubles cost estimates.
  • The nuclear elements on U.S. bombers are 3% of the total cost. 
  • Fully half of the estimated nuclear costs are the maintenance of legacy systems, not modernization. 

In short, when these factors are considered, modernization costs are actually quite reasonable. Even at its peak in 2030, all nuclear costs will remain at less than 1 percent of the federal budget, while modernization alone will be 0.5 percent and 3-3.4 percent of the federal and defense budget, respectively. As former Secretary of Defense James Mattis understood, such costs are reasonable because as he explained, “Survival is affordable.”

Peter Huessy is President of GeoStrategic Analysis, founded in 1983 and specializing in strategic nuclear and missile defense analysis. This past year he co-directed the publication of a nuclear handbook distributed by the Louisiana Tech Research Institute.