Keeping Strategic Weapons Programs Funded Biggest Threat to U.S. Nuclear Triad, Says Panel

An unarmed Minuteman III ICBM launches during an operational test at 1:13 a.m. Pacific Time on October 2, 2019. US Air Force photo

The biggest threat to the modernization of the nuclear triad is maintaining multiyear modernization funding and presidential administrations, a panel of national security experts told a key Senate panel on Tuesday.

The Air Force and Navy are in the process of replacing key strategic weapons programs from a decades-old era. The Air Force is replacing the 1970s Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile under the $100 billion Sentinel program Defense Messages. The Navy has begun construction of the Columbia-class nuclear ballistic missile submarine to replace its Ohio-class SSBNs of the 1980s.

Madelyn Creedon, chair of the Congressional-created Strategic Posture Commission, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that there is a difficult time ahead in keeping programs like the Columbia-class ballistic submarine program on track while maintaining the fleet of the Ohio Class Boomer to Retire.

Creedon said she believes the commitment to modernize now has support in Congress, the administration and the public.

These programs must also account for the inflation over the years it will take to modernize platforms, systems and infrastructure, she and the other panelists agreed.

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Creedon added that these “future systems must be modular” to adapt to changing threats over decades.

Notwithstanding claims that sweeping modernization programs — including labor recruitment and retention — are creating a new arms race, Eric Edelman, the director of the United States Institute of Peace, quoted Carter administration Secretary of Defense Harold Brown as commenting that the Soviet Union continued to build during the Cold War, even when the US didn’t. This quote now applies to China’s and Russia’s continued advances in their strategic armed forces, Iran’s advances toward a nuclear weapon, and North Korea’s insistence that the world recognize Pyongyang as a nuclear power.

Commenting on the current situation in the United States, Rose Gottemoeller, fellow commissioner and associate professor of international studies at Stanford University, added: “We need to rebuild industrial capacity in both the private and public sectors to start producing platforms, missiles and warheads again that haven’t been built in decades.

The gold crew of the Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine USS Tennessee (SSBN-734) returns to its homeport at Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay, Georgia, after a strategic deterrent patrol January 11, 2020. US Navy photo

“We need to talk about ‘lost skills’ in shipbuilding, submarine building, missile building,” from welders to engineers, to carry the US into the future, Edelman said.

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“We have to watch very closely” how Russia is complying with the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which expires in 2026, in terms of warheads and delivery systems, Goettemoeller said. Since they’ve been producing these for years, “they could easily outrun us,” calling into question the United States’ ability to prevent Moscow and Beijing from attempting a first strike against the home country or allies in a crisis.

On China, “we don’t exactly do that [know] “Where they go” with the nuclear programs beyond speed, it developed its own triad, added Gottemoeller. Since Beijing is not a party to START or other arms control agreements, she said Washington “needs to convince them of the value of nuclear restraint.”

Franklin Miller, a director of the Scowcroft Group, warned that contracts “are not like that [a] substitute for deterrence.”

“Often we are tempted to believe that Xi [Jin-ping] and [Vladimir] Putin thinks like us,” he said.

That mindset needs to shift to “what would deter them in a crisis” and what they consider valuable, like maintaining power or an asset that could be destroyed in an American retaliatory strike, he said.

Miller added that in this changed strategic environment, US strategic planners cannot rule out cooperation between China and Russia in a nuclear crisis, which means Washington must be prepared to deter both at the same time. This means there is solid continuity in the structure of government and a resilient nuclear command and control system. He and Edelman cited the advances China has made in its fractional-orbit hypersonic bombardment system as an example of a possible attack with very little warning to the continuity and nuclear leadership and control of the American government.

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Because it’s a maneuverable cruise missile, “we wouldn’t know where it’s going,” Miller said.

Other panelists, all speaking for themselves, cited China and Russia’s anti-satellite weapons, their pursuit of artificial intelligence and machine learning in weapon systems and other technologies to prevent a retaliatory strike.

“We’ve let command and control atrophy over the years,” Miller said.

In this regard, he proposed adding a nuclear sea-launched cruise missile to the anti-submarine ballistic missile and air-breathing systems program to send a reassuring message to allies facing shorter-range nuclear threats from Russia and China. The Biden administration earlier this year called off Pentagon efforts to develop a sea-launched cruise missile.

“I do not think so [building these missiles] creates any arms race,” because Moscow and Beijing already have a large number of these platforms in their arsenals, he said.

“We don’t have to have parity” in the number of warheads and delivery systems, but the United States “has to have enough to hold something.” [Russia and China] value-at-risk,” Miller added.

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