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Nuclear Modernization

The Obama administration’s fading commitment.

Oct 10, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 04 • By MARK SCHNEIDER
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The Obama administration’s 2010 Nuclear Posture Review adopted the goals of reduced reliance on nuclear weapons, continued nuclear weapons reductions, and the ultimate, if controversial, goal of “nuclear zero”—the elimination of those weapons altogether. At the same time, it pledged to maintain a safe, secure, and effective nuclear deterrent as long as other nations have nuclear arms. These goals are difficult to achieve simultaneously, and the Obama administration has stated explicitly that its priority “atop the U.S. nuclear agenda” is movement toward nuclear zero.

Photo of nuclear submarine

The commitment of the administration to sustaining an effective nuclear deterrent force became a contentious issue in 2010 during Senate debate on ratification of the New START Treaty. Senate critics of the treaty were concerned that it effectively demanded only U.S. force reductions and that the Obama administration lacked commitment to maintaining the U.S. nuclear triad (bombers, ICBMs, and missile submarines). Each element of the triad has attributes that support deterrence: ICBMs are the most secure, alert, and responsive, bombers the most flexible, and missile submarines the most likely to survive an attack.

The Obama administration argued that it would maintain a “robust” deterrent, claiming that it planned to “invest well over $100 billion to sustain existing strategic delivery systems capabilities,” modernize these aging U.S. systems, and replace decrepit facilities to fabricate uranium and plutonium parts with modern plants.

Under congressional pressure, in May 2010, the administration outlined its modernization plans in a report to Congress, the so-called Section 1251 report. In November 2010, an update to the report provided additional detail, presumably to calm critics of the administration’s New START Treaty. The November 2010 report promised “modernization” of “America’s nuclear arsenal,” but options were constrained by the administration’s simultaneous policy of no “new” U.S. nuclear weapons or weapon capabilities. The November report promised pursuit of a new heavy bomber and a new cruise missile to assure the continued effectiveness of the bomber part of the triad. The report also pointed towards a replacement ICBM by 2030.

These administration commitments succeeded in gaining Senate approval of the New START Treaty. Skeptics warned, however, that this commitment to modernizing the U.S. nuclear deterrent would prove temporary, given the Obama administration’s higher priority of movement toward nuclear zero. Unfortunately, the skeptics appear to have been correct.

The administration’s pledges to sustain and modernize U.S. nuclear forces now look short on substance and long on rhetoric. There has been minimal progress on the commitments to a new bomber, a replacement air-launched nuclear cruise missile, and possibly a new ICBM. Instead, budgetary pressures and further U.S. force reductions appear to threaten one or more of these programs.

The Obama administration has funded a replacement for the Trident missile submarine in 2029. But the number of submarines will be reduced as will the number of missiles per submarine, and a replacement for the Trident II missile is not scheduled until 2042. And judging by recent administration statements, the capabilities of the replacement submarine may be downgraded to reduce costs.

The administration’s approach to fixing problems with nuclear warheads and facilities for nuclear materials, which initially appeared to be robust, also may be flagging. The administration did submit the promised funding request for FY2012 to fix parts of our broken nuclear weapons complex. However, to date it has made no effort to sustain that funding in Congress. Both House and Senate appropriations committees have made cuts that will delay critical nuclear weapons life extension programs. The House Appropriations Energy and Water Development Subcommittee has cut $500 million from the $7.1 billion budget request for nuclear weapon activities. The comparable Senate committee has cut $440 million. These cuts, if they stand, will put in jeopardy life extension programs for W78 warheads for ICBMs, B61 nuclear bombs deployed to Europe in support of NATO, and for completing the life extension of W76 warheads on our ballistic missile submarines.

In addition, cuts eliminate over $200 million for nuclear warhead infrastructure and over $130 million from science and technology at our national labs. Of specific concern is a cut of $100 million from funds to build the Chemistry and Metallurgy Replacement Facility, the nation’s only plutonium research and engineering facility, to support the nuclear stockpile and nonproliferation programs.

One reason the Obama administration came under pressure to modernize U.S. nuclear deterrent capabilities for the long term is the obvious fact that Russia, China, and others are engaged in extensive nuclear modernization programs. For example, Russian press reports state that Russia will triple its strategic missile production over the period 2011-2015. Russia is deploying new silo-based and mobile ICBMs and new ballistic missile submarines, which will carry a new type of ballistic missile. By 2018, Russia plans to deploy a new “heavy” ICBM, which reportedly can carry 10-15 nuclear warheads. Russian plans call for developing a stealthy bomber and deploying a new nuclear cruise missile. New advanced nuclear warheads are being deployed, including low-yield warheads to make nuclear threats more credible. Additionally, Russia enjoys a 10-to-1 advantage over the United States in tactical nuclear weapons.

The Chinese nuclear buildup is slower but steady. China is deploying two new mobile ICBMs. Reportedly, China is developing multiple warhead ICBMs and submarine-launched ballistic missiles. It is also building new missile submarines to carry these latter missiles. North Korea, Iran, and possibly India are also developing ICBMs. Apparently these nations have not been inspired by the “nuclear zero” slogan.

Recently, administration officials have made explicit statements revealing lukewarm support for their earlier commitment to nuclear modernization. For example, in early 2011, White House arms control coordinator Gary Samore said the U.S. government was considering further unilateral nuclear weapons cuts and eliminating a leg of the nuclear triad. When asked about this, then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates would not rule it out. In September, Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that a decision will have to be made” in the future “of whether we keep the triad or drop it down to a dyad.” Reporting in the Washington Times, Bill Gertz wrote that the Obama White House is determined to “make deeper cuts on strategic nuclear forces.” In July 2011, according to AOL Defense, General James Cartwright, then-vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, opined that “America does not need a stealthy long-range bomber able to penetrate deep into remote, well-defended places.”

The $400 billion cut in defense spending announced by President Obama in April 2011 probably means that the prospect for the new bomber or a replacement ICBM is poor unless Congress takes the initiative. As the Pentagon is forced to consider huge budget cuts, the ICBM force may be on the chopping block or subject to large unilateral reductions. Either move would be a mistake. So much for the Obama administration’s expressed resolve to modernize the U.S. nuclear deterrent.

In 2009, the bipartisan U.S. Strategic Commission recommended “retention of the current Triad.” The large defense budget cuts being considered today are very risky. At a minimum, the long-term commitment to the U.S. nuclear deterrent as outlined in the administration’s November 2010 report needs to be protected. If the Obama administration does not give sustained attention to these issues, further erosion and atrophy of U.S. capabilities are inevitable along with serious risks of a weakened U.S. nuclear deterrent.

Mark Schneider was special assistant in the Office of the Secretary of Defense during the New START Treaty negotiations. He now serves as a senior analyst at the National Institute for Public Policy.

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