The following remarks were delivered by Lexington Institute’s Loren Thompson to a deterrence forum sponsored by the Advanced Nuclear Weapons Alliance in Washington on January 31.
The number of nuclear weapons in the U.S. stockpile today is at its lowest level in 60 years.
At its peak in 1967, the stockpile held over 31,000 warheads.
Today, thanks to arms control and a relaxation in East-West tensions, there are only 4,000 warheads in the inventory.
Judging from the tone of the recently leaked Nuclear Posture Review, this is as low as we are going to get.
The Trump administration proposes to add new capabilities to the nuclear arsenal and restore lost production capacity in the energy department’s nuclear enterprise.
However, the administration’s proposed nuclear posture is more noteworthy for its continuity with past policies than it is for any change in direction.
If the posture is fully implemented…
— The U.S. will still rely mainly on the threat of retaliation rather than on active defenses to protect against nuclear aggression.
— It will still maintain an offensive triad of submarine-launched ballistic missiles, land-based ballistic missiles, and long-range bombers.
— It will still deploy non-strategic nuclear weapons on forward-based fighters.
— It will still provide extended deterrence guarantees to 30 overseas allies and partners.
— It will still adhere to the limits imposed by the most recent strategic arms agreement with Russia.
— And it will still maintain the command-and-control arrangements required to limit damage if deterrence fails.
In other words, the Trump posture confirms the main features of the nuclear modernization plan inherited from the Obama years, and embraces the core assumptions underpinning the previous administration’s nuclear strategy.
The only real difference from the Obama plan is that the Trump posture would add some “modest supplements” — its words — to the nuclear arsenal for coping with emergent regional threats.
So it may be the most important change here is one of attitude — President Obama began his tenure hoping to drastically reduce an already shrinking nuclear force, whereas Trump began his presidential campaign calling for its renewal.
But since Obama gradually came to see the necessity of recapitalizing Cold War nuclear systems and Trump has turned down the heat on his nuclear rhetoric, we are still left with what appears to be a status quo document.
The most important goal of that document, as it states at the beginning, is “to convince adversaries they have nothing to gain and everything to lose from the use of nuclear weapons.”
The primacy of that goal explains why maintaining a triad is so important: submarines are more survivable, but land-based ICBMs are more responsive and long-range bombers are more flexible.
The submarines can’t be targeted when they are on on station beneath the Atlantic and Pacific, however the ICBMs can be launched faster and the bombers can be recalled after they become airborne.
The Trump posture sides with previous reviews in finding that preserving all three legs of the triad makes it nearly impossible to mount a disarming surprise attack against the U.S. strategic deterrent, whereas eliminating even one leg greatly simplifies the challenge of an effective first strike.
For instance, if the ICBMs were eliminated, an attacker would only need to destroy about two dozen targets to minimize U.S. retaliatory options– which could be very destabilizing in a crisis.
We don’t think Russia or China can find our ballistic-missile subs at sea today, but they certainly know where all the bomber and sub bases are, so a future breakthrough in antisubmarine warfare could shake the foundations of deterrence if ICBMs have exited the force.
Anyway, once you accept the need for a triad, the basic requirements of nuclear modernization fall into place…
— We must buy a new fleet of ballistic-missile subs because the Ohio class has already had its life extended and of necessity will begin retiring at the end of the next decade.
— We must buy a new fleet of ICBMs because Minuteman III is quite aged, and may not be reliable beyond 2030.
— We must buy a new fleet of bombers because most of our nuclear-capable bombers are over 50 years old and have long since lost their ability to penetrate hostile air space.
— And we must modernize our nuclear command and control system to assure its resilience as the threat of cyber attacks, jamming and kinetic aggression in space grows.
The administration says all of this plus modest improvements to theater nuclear forces can be had for about one-percent of the federal budget, and that figure includes sustainment of the existing deterrent.
The posture review also discusses a facet of the nuclear modernization challenge that frequently escapes notice in media coverage, namely the decrepit state of the warhead industrial base managed by the Department of Energy.
DoE’s National Nuclear Security Administration gets about half of the department’s budget each year to operate three national labs, four production facilities, and a testing site that collectively sustain and refurbish all of the nuclear warheads carried on military delivery systems.
It also supports counter-proliferation, counter-terror and naval reactor programs.
But the U.S. got out of the business of developing new nuclear warheads in the 1980s, and since that time it has been extending the lives of legacy warheads in part by cannibalizing other weapons in the stockpile.
That strategy was viable because plutonium lasts a long time and the active stockpile was gradually being reduced, but after a quarter century of not developing new weapons, skills and facilities have begun to atrophy.
For instance, the U.S. no longer routinely manufactures the plutonium “pits” at the heart of fission devices; pit production largely ceased after the Reagan years.
Production of tritium needed to boost warhead yield to thermonuclear intensity also is at a low ebb, and the posture review warns that if it is not increased soon the nuclear force will begin to degrade.
So the NPR calls for accelerated recapitalization of the labs and manufacturing facilities engaged in nuclear warhead production, with an eye to boosting output of both plutonium pits and tritium.
This is not a step the previous administration was inclined to take: the White House rebuffed proposals for a next-generation nuclear warhead early in President Obama’s first term, and in the second term it killed a costly plan to rebuild the Y-12 uranium processing facility at Oak Ridge.
Now, apparently, the weapons complex will be getting a lot more money to rebuild skills and production capability.
All of the investments in force structure and the industrial base I have described here would be necessary even if there had been no recent changes in the threat, because the nation’s Cold War nuclear systems are approaching retirement.
For example, the B-52s that make up the backbone of our strategic bomber fleet were last built in 1962, and the cruise missiles they carry to penetrate hostile air space are a quarter-century beyond their intended design life.
Parts of the Y-12 uranium enrichment facility at Oak Ridge were built during the Manhattan project in 1943.
However, I would not want to leave you with the impression that age alone is the reason why the Trump administration wants to modernize the nuclear complex.
The posture review cites worrisome steps that Russia and China have taken with their own strategic forces — steps the document says were not anticipated by Obama-era strategic plans.
Beyond that, the NPR notes geopolitical and technological uncertainties going forward that dictate creating hedges against the emergence of unforeseen dangers in the years ahead.
The Trump administration sees the relatively modest changes it is proposing in the nuclear posture as necessary adjustments to new circumstances that will bolster the credibility of deterrence when dealing with particular players in specific scenarios.
Having said all that, though, I don’t think the new nuclear posture is a significant departure from past practices, and — barring an outbreak of self-destructive partisanship — I expect the president’s nuclear agenda to be fully funded by Congress.
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