Revisiting The U.S. Nuclear Arsenal: A Major Challenge For The Next President

President Obama entered office with grand visions of nuclear disarmament.

Putting aside the typical campaign-year rhetoric committing presidential candidates to “rebuild the military,” the United States is already in the early stages of a massive process of modernizing a vital component of America’s national security.  However, it is not the conventional land, air and naval forces that have played such an enormous role in U.S. foreign policy over the past decade and a half.  The Pentagon and the uniform services have begun to modernize or “recapitalize” America’s strategic deterrent force, or its “nuclear enterprise.”  Given the expected costs and commitment of resources to this large-scale government-wide endeavor, now may be an opportune time to begin to revisit the role of nuclear weapons in guaranteeing the security of the United States in the twenty-first century and consider the roles, missions, and capabilities required to maintain a strong deterrent in the face of a complex and dangerous world. 

President Obama entered office with grand visions of nuclear disarmament.  In his Prague speech in 2009, he became the first sitting U.S. president to embrace the long-term goal of achieving “global zero” the abolition of nuclear weapons.  He also managed to translate this vision into policy, negotiating and ratifying the so-called “New START” Treaty with Russia, and holding a series of a Nuclear Security summits to raise the visibility of and bolster the global commitment to the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) regime.  More recently, while controversial, his willingness to work with allies and less cooperative powers like Russia and China to achieve an agreement that dismantled the Iranian nuclear program can be understood in terms of his strongly-held desire to avert further proliferation in an already volatile region.  Reports that he in entertaining the idea of declaring a “no-first-use” policy on U.S. nuclear weapons before leaving office similarly reflect a deep conviction to de-emphasize nuclear weapons in U.S. (and hence) global politics.

However, as much as the president has attempted to place nonproliferation and arms control at the center of his foreign policy agenda, his Defense Department has already embarked on programs to rebuild the U.S. nuclear arsenal.  Two programs—the SSBN-X, a replacement for the Ohio-Class ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) and the Long-Range Strike Bomber (or B-21), which is planned to replace America’s penetrating stealth bomber, the B-2, as well as older B-1 and B-52 bombers—are already in the development phase.  Beyond the air and sea legs of America’s strategic triad, the Air Force as begun the initial assessments of alternative process for a next generation intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).  The Minuteman III is likely to receive a life-extension program, but Pentagon planners are already considering the need for a new land-based deterrent missile before the end of the next decade. 

It is probably no surprise that given the processes of research and development and production of these weapon systems, planning must being years in advance and procurement and deployment must begin as older legacy systems are retired and phased out.  The major components of the triad each come with staggering price tags.

The total cost for 12 new SSBNs have been estimated at between $79 billion and $92.  As of now, that does not include the development of a new submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) to replace the currently deployed Trident.  Thus far, the research and development costs of the B-21 bomber have been estimated at $23.5 billion, and the planned purchase of approximately 100 bombers are expected to approximately $55 billion.  While the replacement for the Minuteman II ICBM, now termed the Ground-Based Deterrent Force (GBDF), is still in the very early stages, the FY 2017 budget has devoted $114 million for the project, while early Air Force estimates place the costs of $62 billion over 30 years. 

Beyond the massive effort to overhaul the strategic triad, two additional “non-strategic” nuclear programs have recently received significant scrutiny amidst public criticism and controversy. 

The B61-12 nuclear gravity bomb consolidates several older models for use on new U.S. and allied strike and bomber aircraft.  With estimates between $8-11 billion for the program, it is also expensive.  While the program has been depicted as a simple-but-costly “upgrade” and does indeed utilize existing older weapon components, the key addition of a tail-kit reportedly provides the B61-12 with a level of precision and accuracy that previous gravity bombs lacked.  Moreover, its explosive yield can be adjusted to minimize fallout and collateral damage.  Therefore, opponents have argued the low yield and high accuracy might make the B61-12 more “usable” in a conflict or crisis, undermining the perceived taboo against nuclear weapons and undermining the United States’ leadership in the cause of minimizing the role of nuclear weapons in the world. 

Similarly, the Long-Range Standoff (LRSO) missile, which has been developed as a replacement to the Air-Launched Cruise Missile (ALCM) has generated significant controversy.   The Air Force is seeking to purchase approximately 1,000 to 1,100 of these new advanced cruise missiles for use on existing legacy platforms like the B-52.  With the proliferation of advanced integrated air defense systems, and because these bombers are not stealthy, they cannot penetrate enemy airspace to deliver ordinance.  The LSRO would be launched from outside the air defense zone, keeping the plane and its crew from jeopardy and delivering the warhead with high probability, thus extending the utility of the B-52 and B-1 through the next decade.  The major problem (aside from potential costs) is that the Pentagon has sought to procure both nuclear and conventional variants of the LRSO, and opponents have argued that this creates ambiguity and raises the possibility of inadvertent escalation in the event of a conflict, particularly if a conventionally-armed cruise missile is mistaken for a conventionally armed one.  Moreover, if the B61-12 is in service and available for use on the penetrating stealth bomber, the B-2 or stealthy strike aircraft like the F-35, then the LRSO is a redundant capability that only raises risks of misperception. 

Despite these major investments (both planned and initiated) and the array of missions they are expected to achieve in order to deter an attack on the United States, there has been surprisingly little debate over the number and type (or “size and shape”) of nuclear forces that the United States requires in the 21st Century.  Given the timing of the recapitalization process, such a deep and wide-ranging assessment would seem to be a particularly useful exercise for the next president given that these forces will constitute the core of the United States deterrent, and thus its national security, for many years to come.