Should the US Modernize its Nuclear Arsenal?


The question of whether or not the US should “modernize” its nuclear arsenal has been around for a long time and could include a number of different actions, including

*Developing more nuclear warheads
*Developing hypersonic weapons with nuclear warheads
*Developing new types of nuclear weapons
*Assuring the continuity of the stockpile against decay

Recently (October 2022) the Biden administration released its nuclear posture review but did not make any significant changes.

Michael Clarke explained on November 11, 2022:

The Biden administration has released its long-awaited Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) as part of the similarly-delayed National Defense Strategy (NDS). The NPR typically provides an administration’s answers to a number of core questions about America’s nuclear posture. For instance, should it change employment guidance for the nuclear arsenal? Should it adjust force size and/or composition? And should it adjust U.S. declaratory policy?

History Strategy Game

The delay in delivery of the NPR (and NDS of which it is a part) has been caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 which prompted the administration to rewrite the document in order to account for both how the war had shifted international politics and to equalize the relative weighting of Europe and Asia in the administration’s attention.

In other words, “great power competition” has evidently cast a long shadow over the administration’s attempts to answer such questions. Some may argue that this is a good thing. However, instead of using what Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin describes as this “turbulent time” in international affairs to engage in substantive thinking on these questions, the administration appears to have used the prospect of “great power competition” as cover for a status quo-oriented NPR that tinkers at most with the margins of U.S. nuclear posture.

The administration certainly did not start with a blank slate. But to be fair it did have to choose which elements of America’s nuclear posture from previous administrations to keep, renovate, or discard. The most fundamental question for the Biden team concerns the purpose of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. American nuclear forces have for many years been designed to achieve multiple objectives, from deterring nuclear attack against the United States and/or allies (and responding should deterrence fail), deterring conventional war with great power adversaries, serving as a tool of “counter-proliferation” by deterring the acquisition or use of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) by others, and promoting “strategic stability.”

Different administrations, unsurprisingly, have tended to emphasize some of these objectives over others. The Obama administration’s 2010 NPR sought to maintain strategic deterrence and stability at reduced nuclear force levels, consistent with its undertaking of nuclear arms control with Russia, and President Barack Obama’s long-term nuclear disarmament objective. More recently, the Trump administration’s 2018 NPR broadened rather than narrowed the circumstances under which the United States would consider nuclear use—for example, in response to a never defined concept of a “non-nuclear strategic attack.” It also committed to not just continue modernizing the “nuclear triad,” but also to deploy new types of warheads such as the “low-yield” W76-2 submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SBLMs) and sea-launched cruise missiles (what subsequently become known as the SLCM-N program).

Given the political and rhetorical distinctions between the Biden administration and its predecessor, some may have hoped for significant change here. Yet the NPR represents only a change in tone, not in substance, of the American nuclear posture.

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*Modernization is needed to prevent current arsenals from atrophying
*Modernization is needed to deter advanced nuclear programs in China and Russia
*Modernization is needed to deter North Korea
*Modernization is needed to develop weapons that can bust underground bunkers

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Putin’s nuclear saber rattling over Ukraine should be enough to shock U.S. policymakers into recognizing that the United States’ nuclear holiday has ended. Yet even as they grapple with the latest Russian threats, Washington is faced with another looming nuclear challenge that may be even more dangerous in the long run. China is undertaking a “breathtaking expansion” of its nuclear capabilities and overturning more than a half-century of a relatively modest nuclear posture, according to congressional testimony in April by U.S. Navy Adm. Charles Richard, commander of U.S. Strategic Command. Along with Putin’s reinsertion of nuclear threats into superpower relations, the specter of a major Chinese nuclear capacity may be the security earthquake that shakes awake the long-dormant Dr. Strangelove. That will be just in time, because current U.S. policies and strategic thinking—including the recently completed Nuclear Posture Review—are unlikely to adequately address the challenges of the new nuclear era.

Richard’s China assessment to Congress followed on the Defense Department’s 2021 Chinese military power report, which detailed Beijing’s nuclear modernization, most notably the Pentagon’s assessment that the People’s Liberation Army may quadruple its nuclear arsenal to as many as 1,000 nuclear weapons by 2030. The report caused heartburn in Washington, providing yet more evidence that China is moving to challenge the U.S. military, which has 3,600 such weapons, and its position of global supremacy. Soon after the Pentagon released its report, a senior Chinese official confirmed that Beijing will continue its nuclear modernization, lending greater credence to the assessment despite other claims by Beijing, and further reports have documented China’s development of land-based missile complexes. Combined with news about China’s successful hypersonic vehicle tests in 2021, the consensus on Beijing’s nuclear ambition presents the Biden administration with a new long-term strategic challenge, even as it grapples with Russia’s nuclear threats.

Regardless of the true numbers, and though still dwarfed by U.S. and Russian strategic forces, China thus maintains a viable nuclear triad and is expanding the numbers and types of missiles it deploys, such as midrange and intermediate-range ballistic missiles, which can be used against U.S. forces in the Pacific region and Washington’s Asian allies. Beijing has also reformed its nuclear command-and-control system, putting nuclear weapons under the control of the PLA Rocket Force and maintaining strict control through the Central Military Commission, which is personally headed by Chinese President Xi Jinping. Perhaps most shocking to U.S. analysts was last year’s evidence of successful tests of low-orbit, globe-girdling hypersonic missiles, moving China closer to a capability against which the United States has no defense. As Richard recently stated, China is in the midst of a “strategic breakout” with “explosive growth” that will shift the global nuclear balance.

The expansion of China’s nuclear arsenal is paralleled by the first major modernization of U.S. nuclear forces in a generation, begun under the Obama administration and continued during the Trump years. “America’s nuclear capability is atrophying,” Matt Pottinger, a deputy national security advisor in the Trump administration, told me. Each leg of the U.S. nuclear triad is long overdue to be updated or replaced, with the U.S. Air Force’s 175 planned B-21 bombers succeeding B-1s and 20 B-2s currently in service (the B-21 will be used for both conventional and nuclear missions), a new Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine, and the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent to replace the Minuteman III force. In addition, aging nuclear warheads will be refurbished or replaced, and many of the older analog systems will be upgraded with digital parts.

By some calculations, the total price tag for U.S. nuclear modernization will exceed $1.5 trillion, and the Congressional Budget Office estimates at least $634 billion will be required just through 2030…Given Putin’s nuclear saber rattling, the NPR may understandably fail to set the stage for a pivot to Asia on nuclear issues. But the Kremlin’s threats only underline why it is not enough for the NPR to consider issues such as U.S. nuclear modernization—it is questions of strategy, intent, psychology, doctrine, and escalation that must come to the fore. Nuclear blackmail, attempts to curtail U.S. conventional operations, threatening allies, and even the use of tactical nukes must all be considered as options Beijing might pursue. Deterring such threats will require a more flexible and robust U.S. nuclear strategy tied to geopolitical scenarios and possible contingencies. But even more importantly, all these scenarios must be thoroughly thought through beforehand.

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*Modernization will trigger advanced nuclear weapons programs in Russia and China
*Modernization will encourage countries to develop nuclear weapons (nuclear proliferation)
*Modernization trades-off with resources the US needs to develop its conventional forces
*Modernization is incredibly expensive

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