NEWS AND ANALYSIS:
The federal government’s $1.2 trillion program to upgrade U.S. nuclear forces is in jeopardy with the election of presumptive President-elect Joseph R. Biden and a Congress that could be led in both chambers by Democrats.
Anti-nuclear activists in Congress are expected to press for scaling back the effort to build new missiles, bombers and ballistic missile submarines — despite the high priority modernization has been given by the Pentagon.
After years of failing to fully fund recapitalization of aging nuclear forces, the Trump administration embarked on a major spending program for nuclear forces. Most current systems are aging and in need of upgrades, even as both China and Russian have for years been engaged in large-scale nuclear modernization programs.
The former vice president has not provided details on how he will approach nuclear modernization. But in early 2017 he said in a speech that spending more for building up nuclear forces in ways opposite those of the Obama administration would not improve American security.
“If future budgets reverse the choices we’ve made and pour additional money into a nuclear buildup, it hearkens back to the Cold War and will do nothing to increase the day-to-day security of the United States or our allies,” Mr. Biden said.
The Democratic president-elect has said he would return to President Obama‘s policy of reducing the role of nuclear weapons in the U.S. military posture. He also favors “no-first-use” nuclear policies like the one adopted by China, which claims Beijing will only nuclear weapons in a conflict to retaliate against an enemy’s nuclear attack.
Plans to build “low-yield” nuclear weapons that U.S. military commanders have said are needed to deter comparable nuclear threats from China and Russia are also likely to be shelved by an incoming Biden administration.
Michele Flournoy, deputy defense secretary in the Obama administration and a candidate to head the Department of Defense under Mr. Biden, outlined her views on nuclear forces in 2017. Ms. Flournoy said investments are needed to maintain a strong, stable and effective nuclear deterrent, but added, “We also have to make sure that it’s one that we can afford and sustain.”
Rather than spending heavily on new nuclear forces, other military modernization programs should be funded, she told the Arms Control Association.
A future nuclear force could employ “a different mix of systems and capabilities,” Ms. Flournoy said.
“I do think we need to debate that in looking at the broad architecture of the [nuclear] triad, but also looking at specific systems and what is the most cost-effective approach to creating a more modern set of capabilities,” she said.
Not all legs of the triad — missiles, bombers and submarines — may be needed.
“I think that it’s a question as to (a) whether we need an ICBM leg; and (b) if we do need some ICBM leg, how big does it really have to be to serve the purpose” she said.
Ms. Flournoy also said she has not decided whether the new B-21 bomber is needed to replace the largely 1960s-era B-52 force. That means the Biden administration could conduct another nuclear posture review that would supersede the Trump administration’s 2018 review.
The review could be used by the new administration to scrap plans to replace aging Minuteman 3 land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles with a new missile. The new missile is estimated to cost at least $85 billion.
That would result in nuclear forces relying solely on the new B-21 bomber and older strategic bombers, along with the new Columbia-class nuclear missile submarines.
In Congress, should the Senate switch to Democrat control, liberal anti-nuclear advocates in both the Senate and House will have a clear path to make significant cuts in nuclear force modernization and overall defense spending.
Two former aides to Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer warned recently that defense cuts are coming under Democrats.
“If Democrats effectively leverage the House majority and executive branch, they could put their mark on national security by retiring legacy platforms and closing unneeded installations; sustaining essential [Defense Department] platforms, reallocating resources, and leveraging technological advancements from the private sector to modernize the DoD,” wrote Israel Klein and Brian Greer in The Hill.
Cuts in nuclear modernization likely will be met with opposition from U.S. military leaders. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown recently said that building new missiles and bombers is his highest priority
“Nuclear modernization is there at the top,” he told Defense News.
General on hypersonic warfare
Air Force Gen. Kenneth S. Wilsbach, commander of the Pacific Air Forces, recently outlined the military’s plan for conducting ultrahigh speed hypersonic warfare.
One key program to be involved is called Joint All Domain Command and Control, dubbed JADC2.
Asked earlier this month about deterring China, which is leading the world in hypersonic weapons and recently announced deployment of its first hypersonic strike weapon, the DF-17 missile, Gen. Wilsbach said he has been contemplating what weapons are needed.
In addition to U.S. hypersonic missiles currently in development, there is a new system that can detect and counter enemy hypersonics as well as guide and direct U.S. high-speed missiles.
“These weapons travel at such a speed and they go such a great distance that it’s very difficult to defend against,” the general said Nov. 17 in a meeting with reporters. “That means you can hold targets at risk with a minimum amount of time, it really cuts the time of flight of the weapon down, and the success that the weapon hits the target is considerably higher than the current family of weapons that we have.”
The U.S. is “on our way” to building some of these weapons, he noted.
To guide American hypersonic missiles and track and destroy enemy hypersonics, Gen. Wilsbach said the military is building the JADC2 high-tech sensor and tracking system, combining all systems of Air Force, Army, Marine Corps, Navy, and Space Force into a single network.
“What is JADC2? It’s the ability to command and control your joint forces to create an integrated set of dilemmas for your adversary, at a volume as well as at a pace that your adversary really has a hard time keeping up with,” the four-star general explained.
The Air Force variant of the system is called the “advanced battle management system” that the general described as a software network of networks. The system gives commanders “situational awareness of what the targets are, where they are, where your forces are, and to communicate a tasking to those forces to strike the target,” he said.
Forces in the Indo-Pacific recently conducted experiments in the region and European forces also were practicing with the system. More tests will be held in coming year.
The JADC2, when combined with hypersonic weapons, will be shared with American allies and partners to increase the effectiveness of regional and global defenses.
COVID-restricted Thanksgiving meals
The Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) once again has moved large numbers of Thanksgiving Day meals to troops deployed in Afghanistan and other missions around the world.
This year holiday meals will be held in COVID-restricted dining facilities and galleys in the Middle East, Europe, Africa, Korea, Japan, Qatar and Honduras, as well as in the United States. Following months of preparation, all 9,000 turkeys that were sent to hubs in Europe, Southwest Asia and Alaska come from the U.S. farms and were flown aboard Transportation Command aircraft.
This year’s supply of Thanksgiving Day food had the added problem of operating during the COVID-19 pandemic that has made a challenging logistics feat more difficult. Meal halls in many troop locations have limited seating in a bid to limit the risk of infection.
In addition to whole turkeys, the holiday menu includes 74,000 pounds of beef, 21,000 pounds of ham, 67,000 pounds of shrimp, 16,000 pounds of sweet potatoes, 19,000 pounds of pies and cakes, 7,000 gallons of eggnog and other treats.
“Thanksgiving is the food service Super Bowl,” said Todd Lutz, customer operations division chief in DLA’s Subsistence supply chain.
The DLA troop support branch supplies the services each year with $19 billion in food, uniforms, protective gear, medicine and medical supplies, repair parts and construction equipment.
The DLA is the main combat logistics support agency for the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force, Space Force, Coast Guard, 11 combatant commands. It also supplies other federal agencies and allied nations.
• Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter @BillGertz