How does a parent choose which one of her two children to sacrifice in order that the other will live? This is the choice that confronts Sophie in William Styron’s eponymous novel. If this seems like a dilemma fit only for novels and not real life, not true. It is a choice that confronts the Department of Defense and, more broadly, the United States today. Simply put, under projected defense budgets the Pentagon will not be able to maintain both adequate strategic forces and conventional capabilities. One will have to be sacrificed to preserve the other.
According to the Congressional Budget Office, the estimated cost to maintain the current nuclear TRIAD and supporting military infrastructure will be about $21 billion a year through 2023. For the same period, the cost of maintaining all conventional forces will be approximately $500 billion a year. According to the kind of math that even I can do, this means that the price for deterrence of strategic attacks on the U.S. homeland or that of our allies is less than 4 percent of total projected defense spending.
Unfortunately, the reality is that $21 billion a year is woefully inadequate to maintain the current force. At this level of funding, weapons systems are aging severely, the infrastructure is decaying, skills are atrophying and the industrial and scientific/technical base needed to maintain the force is vanishing. How many scandals and crises do elements of the strategic force need to experience before it becomes clear that we have not adequately resourced one of the two pillars of our national security? You would think that losing both its Chief of Staff and Service Secretary to a major nuclear weapons safety incident would ensure that the Air Force paid attention to this part of its responsibilities. Now we have another scandal in the missile force followed by new promises of attention and resources.
The current efforts by U.S. Strategic Command and the Air Force to fix glaring deficiencies in the land-based leg of the TRIAD are, with all due respect, akin to putting a band-aid on a sucking chest wound. Every leg of the TRIAD will require not just modernization but replacement over the next two to three decades. The replacement of the Ohio-class SSBNs, scheduled to begin in 2021, will cost, at a minimum, around $70 billion just for the submarines. The Air Force is hoping to develop a new long-range bomber at $550 million a copy for between 80 and 100 platforms. The intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) force can last possibly until 2030, after which a new missile will be required.
Weapons and warheads need to be modernized or refurbished. These include the centerpiece of U.S. theater nuclear capabilities, the B61 gravity bomb. There are reports that the air-launched cruise missile will have to be replaced by a new long-range cruise missile by the middle of the next decade.
Right now, all of these strategic force programs are in direct competition with the Services’ array of programs for conventional weapons and platforms. At present, the Ohio replacement program directly competes with all other ships for money in the Navy’s shipbuilding and conversion budget. Each of the Services is desperately trying to sequence their major acquisition programs in a way to reduce the friction between conventional and strategic portions. They had some hopes of accomplishing this goal until the Budget Control Act and sequestration hit.
The reality is that given current defense budget projections, particularly if sequestration takes effect but possibly even if it is staved off, will make it impossible for DoD to both maintain a safe, secure and credible nuclear deterrent and organize, train and equip an adequate conventional force. The department will have to choose between its two children. You can already see signs of the two cherubs being weighed on the scales and questions being raised about the need to certify as nuclear capable the new long-range bomber and the feasibility of eliminating one leg (usually the ICBMs) of the TRIAD.
We stopped seriously investing in our strategic forces, including the personnel, when the Cold War ended. Perhaps even more serious, we stopped thinking about topics related to them such as the nature of deterrence, the credibility of nuclear threats and guarantees in a changing world, the implications of operating in a world with more and not fewer, nuclear powers, escalation control and the relationship between conventional, strategic, space and cyber deterrence and operations. The adequacy of our intelligence on strategic issues also has declined. We know virtually nothing about North Korean or Iranian thoughts on any of these subjects. The costs involved in recovering lost analytic and intelligence skills and capabilities will be measured more in time than in money. But they will still be significant.
In this context, the greatest threat to the future of the U.S. strategic deterrent is not Russia or China, nor even arms controllers still intent on pursuing the chimera of global zero. The greatest threat is the armed services themselves. And why not. Who would not want weapons platforms and systems you can actually employ rather than those whose only responsibility is to pose such a threat that their use is never required.
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