If nuclear weapons are “relics of the Cold War,” then why is every other nuclear weapons state — declared and otherwise — busily modernizing and even expanding their arsenals of such weapons? Russia is working on new land-based and submarine-launched intercontinental ballistic missiles, as well as maneuvering warheads designed to counter missile defenses. Russia has even taken its aging Bear bombers out of mothball and conducted dozens of simulated nuclear attacks against NATO, Japan and even the United States. These developments are in addition to retaining an arsenal of theater nuclear weapons ten times that of the United States. Moreover, Russia has revised its nuclear war doctrine, stressing the possible use of both theater and even strategic nuclear weapons to contain and even shut down a conventional conflict along Russia’s borders.
According to a recent report by the U.S. intelligence community, “China has the most active and diverse ballistic missile development program in the world. It is developing and testing offensive missiles, forming additional missile units, qualitatively upgrading missile systems, and developing methods to counter ballistic missile defenses.” China has deployed hundreds of dual-capable theater ballistic and cruise missiles within range of U.S. and allied targets in the Asia-Pacific region. Included among them is the DF-21, said by some to be a near-perfect replica of the U.S. Pershing II missile, and designed to hunt down U.S. aircraft carriers. Most of these weapons are in the range band of 500-5,500km, which the United States and Russia are prohibited from deploying because of the INF Treaty. There is a slow but steady increase in both the quality and quantity of Chinese intercontinental ballistic missiles, including its first-ever ballistic missile submarine.
North Korea has developed and deployed several hundred theater missiles based on the venerable Soviet-era SCUD, some of which are road mobile and others silo-based. Pyongyang is also working hard on longer-range ballistic missiles; last year it tested what was called a space launch vehicle. The regime has conducted three nuclear tests, with varying degrees of success but all directed at developing useable weapons deployable on aircraft and missiles.
The other, smaller would-be nuclear powers continue to march along the path to nuclearization. Pakistan and India are expanding their nuclear weapons stockpiles and long-range delivery systems. Iran owes much of the success of its ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programs to assistance, first, from North Korea and, second, Russia. So does Syria. Both countries have ballistic missiles that could carry a nuclear warhead to targets in the Middle East region.
On top of all their offensive deployments, many of these same nations are investing in advanced air and missile defense systems intended to defeat current generation U.S. aircraft and air-delivered weapons. China already has the densest air defense network in the world and is working on improvements such as long-range, high-performance surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) and fifth-generation fighters. Russia is developing, deploying and offering for sale advanced “triple digit” SAM systems; one such deal was with Iran for the S-300, although Moscow has yet to consummate the contract. Russia, China, North Korea and Iran are also employing passive defense techniques including burying and super hardening critical military infrastructure and forces so as render them less vulnerable to conventional and nuclear attack.
The only significant public opposition to U.S. efforts to pursue a carefully crafted and limited strategic modernization program comes from groups within this country. They accuse the Department of Defense of “Cold War thinking,” a ridiculous accusation given the behavior of the other nuclear nations mentioned above. They also characterize the Obama Administration’s limited efforts to upgrade obsolescing weapons and develop replacements as a misguided expenditure of scarce defense resources on unnecessary weapons systems. They oppose the modernization of the B-61 gravity bomb, the development of a new long-range standoff cruise missile to replace the out-of-service air-launched cruise missile (ALCM), the construction of a replacement for the Ohio-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine and even a new long-range strategic bomber. In other words, they are advocating slow-motion U.S. nuclear disarmament in a world which is experiencing a resurgence of nuclear capabilities.
Each element of the U.S. nuclear modernization program focuses on a critical strategic requirement. The upgraded B-61 is the centerpiece of extended deterrence — the ability to protect allies. It also is important for holding at risk hardened and buried targets. The new long-range strike system coupled to the ALCM replacement will offset Russian, Chinese, North Korean and Iranian investments in air defenses and buried structures. The Ohio replacement is the ultimate guarantor of U.S. retaliation in the event of nuclear strikes on the U.S. homeland. In a strategic environment marked by political uncertainty and growing nuclear capabilities in the hands of potential adversaries, modernizing the U.S. strategic forces is not “Cold War thinking” but rather “New World realism.”
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