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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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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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