President-elect Donald Trump has stirred up fears of a new arms race in a Twitter message on improving “nuclear capability,” but President Obama already has committed to spending as much as $20 billion a year to update the nation’s ability to conduct a nuclear war.
During his two terms, Mr. Obama has blessed the go-ahead for their new major weapon systems: a strategic bomber, a ground-based intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), and an air-launched, atomic-cruise missile. He also funded a new more accurate atomic bomb.
At a congressional hearing this summer, a top Pentagon policymaker and two four-star generals laid out long-term modernization plans of up to $450 billion over 20 years to stay ahead of China and Russia.
“Our capabilities as a whole have lasted well beyond their designed service life,” testified Navy Adm. Cecil D. Haney, who heads U.S. Strategic Command. “It is crucial that we modernize our strategic deterrence capabilities, which underpin our national and global security.”
“Strategic deterrent” means ground- and submarine-based ICBMs, and long-range bombers. The triad’s mission is to strike any enemy who dared to attack the United States with its nuclear arsenal. China and Russia have such a capability. North Korea is moving to extend the ranges of its arsenal.
Mr. Trump on Thursday tweeted his objective as commander in chief: “The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.”
The words are somewhat cryptic in that “expand its nuclear capability” does not necessarily mean more warheads. Regardless, the U.S. now operates under an arms agreement with Moscow that limits warhead counts. The American arsenal is 85 percent below its Cold War peak. The numbers: 1,550 deployed warheads and 700 deployed delivery systems.
The U.S. has no such agreement with communist China, which is rapidly expanding its atomic arsenal.
On Friday, Mr. Trump doubled down on his vow, telling an MSNBC host to “let it be an arms race” when asked to clarify the tweet he had sent.
“Let it be an arms race … we will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all,” Mr. Trump told host Mika Brzezinski, she reported on “Morning Joe.”
Some might argue that Mr. Obama already had followed Mr. Trump. The president has approved development of a new strategic bomber, the B-21, that would outperform the very old B-52. He also has approved research into smaller-warhead nuclear weapons.
It’s not just aging planes. The nuclear-tipped Air Launched Cruise Missile (ALCM), the strike weapon carried by the B-52, is 30 years old. It was designed to last 10 years.
“It’s having difficulties maintaining its reliability,” Gen. Robin Rand, head of Air Force Strike Command, told a House Armed Services Committee panel last July. “But more importantly, the missile will not be survivable in the ever-increasing A2AD environment.”
“A2AD” is a Pentagon acronym for the war planning concept of “anti-access and area denial.” In this case, it means the enemy has countermeasures to defeat cruise missiles.
Gen. Rand, who oversees all nuclear bombers and ICBMs, asked the committee to continue funding its replacement, the LRSO, or long-range standoff weapon.
“We need a new weapon system,” he said.
Robert Scher, assistant secretary of defense for strategic plans, put the modernization cost at up to $450 billion over 20 years, or about $20 billion a year. “To deter massive nuclear attack, the United States must maintain a force that is invulnerable to a disarming first strike,” Mr. Scher said.
“The need to sustain effective deterrence and strategic stability drives the requirement to modernize U.S. nuclear forces,” he testified. “And we must make investments now to have replacements ready when needed. … Claims that U.S. modernization signals a nuclear arms buildup or a renewed arms race do not fairly characterize our activities and those of other countries.”
Adm. Haney, whose command draws ups the specific target list for each country deemed a possible nuke threat, said Moscow is modernizing virtually every component, including submarines, cruise missiles and ICBMs, both static and mobile.
Gen. Rand put in a pitch to fund the silo-based Ground Base Strategic Deterrence to replace the 50-year-old Minuteman III missile.
The Pentagon completed tests in October 2015 on a new version of the B61 series of nuclear bombs. The bombs, minus nuclear capability, were tested at the Tonopah Test Range in Nevada, Global Security.org reported. “The B61-12 is considered more accurate than previous versions. It was to be deployed at an air base in Germany.
⦁ David Sherfinski contributed to this report.