U.S. strategic missiles, bombers and submarines are old and operating beyond their technical life expectancies, and replacements and upgraded warheads are needed urgently to deter growing nuclear threats from China, Russia and North Korea, according to military and defense officials.
“We don’t have any margin left to delay programs,” Air Force Lt. Gen. James C. Dawkins Jr., the deputy chief of staff for Strategic Deterrence and Nuclear Integration at the Pentagon, said in a recent congressional hearing.
Gen. Dawkins and other nuclear officials told lawmakers reviewing a Pentagon request for $634 billion over 10 years for weapon and warhead system upgrades that any delays in overdue strategic modernization could result in an undermining of nuclear deterrence that has kept the peace for more than 50 years.
Deterring a nuclear attack on Americans and U.S. allies has not changed in the past decade, but the threats from adversaries and new technologies have increased, the general testified during the May 17 hearing of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces.
“Failure to adapt to a changing world is not an option; every operational plan and capability in the Department of Defense rests on the foundation of strategic nuclear deterrence. The stakes could not be higher,” Gen. Dawkins said.
Vice Adm. Johnny Wolfe, director of Navy strategic weapons systems, testified during the same hearing that Ohio-class nuclear missile systems armed with nuclear-tipped Trident D-5 missiles comprise 70 percent of the nation’s operationally-deployed nuclear warheads, but are currently operating beyond their life expectancy.
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Years of delays in replacing the submarines with new Columbia-class missile submarines are “increasing concerns about mission effectiveness, reliability and availability,” Vice Adm. Wolfe said in prepared testimony.
“Replacement programs are ongoing, but there is little or no margin between the end of useful life of existing programs and the fielding of their replacements,” said the admiral, who alerted lawmakers that strategic forces “age out” and must be replaced.
“We’re not asking to go put exquisite new systems in place,” he said. “We’re just asking to modernize what we’ve got today because, over the last 50-plus years, it has proven it works. But it’s got to be reliable and credible because it’s not about what we believe, it’s what Russia and China believe. And the day they believe that our systems don’t work and they’re not credible is the day that they may ask the question, ‘Is today the day?’ So, that’s exactly why we’re asking to modernize what we’ve got, not increase, not grow numbers.”
Gen. Dawkins also told lawmakers that the credibility of nuclear deterrence is degraded if weapons and delivery platforms are unreliable or inaccurate.
U.S. advantages in conventional military power, space systems and cyber weapons also can be “negated” once adversaries perceive they have a nuclear advantage and escalate a conflict to gain the advantage, he said.
“For far too long, we have deferred our nation’s nuclear modernization and cannot do so any longer,” Gen. Dawkins said, adding that efforts to build new bombers, missiles, and a new air-launched nuclear missiles “are already late to need and have little to zero schedule margin.”
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“It is not a choice between replacing these platforms and keeping them,” he said. “It has become a choice between replacing them or losing them entirely.”
The Air Force is replacing the entire Minuteman III ICBM force that is over 56 years old with a new missile called the LGM-35A Sentinel missiles. The first Sentinels will be deployed in 2027 with full deployment by 2036.
The Sentinel will be armed with older W87, 300-kiloton yield warheads until an upgraded W87-1 warhead is added in the future. The newer warhead has been delayed because of limited production facilities for warhead pits.
New B-21 Raider bombers will be deployed “in the very near future,” according to Gen. Dawkins, who said the bombers will be armed with a new long-range, stand-off missile that will replace aging nuclear-tipped air-launched cruise missiles.
The first B-21 was ground-tested in March. The B-21 will operate with older B-52s bombers that are being upgraded with new engines and communications systems.
Gen. Dawkins said the new stand-off missile is the first new nuclear missile since the 1980s and is “more critical than ever that the LRSO program remains funded and on schedule.”
The Air Force also has begun converting weapons storage areas for warheads and nuclear bombs to upgraded “weapons generation facilities” at ICBM bases and a bomber base.
Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Defense Programs Deborah G. Rosenblum testified during the May 17 hearing that five aging warheads are being modernized, including the W88, B61, W80, W87 and W93 warheads.
The Trident D5 missile will undergo two modernizations.
“I cannot overstate the importance of ensuring the successful execution of key programs and the development and funding of plans to continue to ensure that the United States retains a safe, secure, and effective deterrent,” Ms. Rosenblum testified.
Jill Hruby, the undersecretary for nuclear security at the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), also warned that delays in funding could undermine needed nuclear modernization.
“NNSA is fully aware that delivering the deterrent and capabilities our nation needs to respond to the current environment requires a faster pace and a more complete modernization of weapons than over the last several decades,” Ms. Hruby told lawmakers.
NNSA’s budget request for nuclear weapons in fiscal 2023 is $16.5 billion.
Assistant Secretary of Defense for Space Policy John Plumb, who also testified during the hearing, defended the Biden administration’s decision to cancel a new nuclear-armed submarine-launched ballistic and to retire the nuclear B83 earth-penetrating gravity bomb.
The bomb is “of increasingly limited value,” he said.
Rep. Doug Lamborn said the administration should keep the B83 until another weapon can be deployed for use against hardened underground targets. “Right now, [the B83] is a better solution than anything else out there on the table in our arsenal,” Mr. Lamborn said.
Gen. Dawkins, meanwhile, said that for the first time in history the United States is facing two nuclear-armed adversaries, China and Russia.
China poses the largest long-term threat to the United States with large increases in both conventional and nuclear forces.
Chinese forces will have at least 1,000 warheads by 2030 and are modernizing and expanding a nuclear triad of missiles, bombers and submarines, including three new ICBM fields in western China.
“The PRC’s nuclear breakout is deeply concerning,” Gen. Dawkins said, referring to the People’s Republic of China. “These capabilities will embolden Chinese leaders to leverage their nuclear forces to achieve Chinese political objectives, such as coercing other states — including U.S. allies — or threatening U.S. assets and interests across Asia and the Pacific.”
The buildup is unconstrained by any arms control agreement, and “none are expected to be negotiated anytime in the near future,” he said.