With the Biden administration’s willingness to put national security on the negotiating table with its feckless approach to the New START negotiations, is the peacenik door open for questioning the U.S. nuclear triad strategy? Liberty Nation coverage of America’s nuclear posture has been extensive and supportive of a robust nuclear deterrent in negotiations with the Russians, including the Chinese as an emerging nuclear power. The Biden administration … well, not so much. LN reporting explains:
“Resting US national security on a symbolic nuclear arms treaty that does not include China, a reasonably formidable nuclear foe, or tactical nuclear weapons is a fool’s errand. The Trump administration had been pushing to include China in the talks, but it refused to participate.”
Emblematic of what Americans can expect from critics of U.S. nuclear strategy is the opinion piece in Defense News by William Hartung, director of the Arms and Security Program at the Center for International Policy, a group formed by peace activists following the Vietnam War. The 60s flower children are still with us. His argument is not unique; it’s typical of the ilk.
Hartung begins his commentary by referring to the Senate confirmation hearing for Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin. Secretary Austin answered a question put to him by Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK) regarding whether he agreed that “the triad, the land-, air- and sea-based nuclear delivery platforms, are still necessary, even though we do hear a lot of arguments that two of the three would be adequate.” As Mr. Hartung explains:
“Austin’s response was: ‘I believe that the triad has served us well in the past, and I certainly believe that it will continue to do so going forward, and I personally support the triad.’ Now that he has been confirmed as secretary of defense, Austin should reconsider his position.”
Austin got it right at his hearing. Let’s hope he has more integrity than to say one thing to the Senate Armed Services Committee to get confirmed, then “reconsider” as Hartung would recommend. As invidious as Hartung’s view of Secretary Austin’s convictions maybe, Hartung takes a rather tiresome tack for his assault on the nuclear triad. He assails the value of the triad from a predictable argument: We can’t afford three systems. Hartung states that we can’t afford to modernize the triad when we have so many other systems that must be paid for, like the F-35 fighter, KC-46A air refueling aircraft, and a 500 ship Navy (the current number is 355, but who’s counting).
His argument is, of course, a false choice. The U.S. cannot have this and that. Choose one. This argument is fallacious since each weapons system stands on its merit as a capability addressing a threat.
The concept of a nuclear triad arising in the 1960s was to ensure a retaliatory strike was possible if the America was ever the target of a nuclear attack. The logic was that ground-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM), though rapidly launched, would absorb the first strike. The submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) and heavy bombers, while taking longer to deploy, would be relatively safe to retaliate.
Modernizing U.S. nuclear forces now is a priority because, as Mark Schneider in RealClear Defense describes:
“In December 2019, Colonel General Sergei Karakayev, commander of Russia’s ICBM force (the Strategic Missile Force or RVSN), stated that 76% of Russia’s ICBM force had been modernized and that 100% would be by 2024. (By comparison, US ICBM modernization begins inFY2029 despite the fact the US Minuteman ICBM is much older than any legacy Russian ICBM).”
Like it or not, we still have an adversary who very much believes preparing for a nuclear war is a national imperative. The Russians are not allowing their nuclear forces to age.
Currently, 400 Minuteman III missiles make up “the most responsive” leg of the nuclear triad. Fourteen Ohio-class SLBM carrying submarines make up the most survivable leg of the triad. Additionally, 46 B-52H Stratofortress heavy bombers and 20 B-2A Spirit stealth heavy bombers make up the nuclear triad’s most flexible leg.
Each leg of the nuclear triad brings its unique attributes that, when combined, create a formidable deterrent strategic force. But the detractors seldom address the triad as a whole.
Hartung chose to criticize modernizing the triad because it is too expensive. But as is so often the case with the logic of special pleaders, Hartung has used the cost estimates at the upper limits to make his point. He claims that modernizing the nuclear triad will come “at a cost that could approach $2 trillion over the next three decades.” But the number he cites comes from the Arms Control Association April 2019 “Executive Summary,” actually stating more conservatively the cost is “likely to top $1.5 trillion and could even approach $2 trillion.”
The Department of Defense estimates the cost of modernizing the three programs to be $217 billion in the next 15 to 20 years, a price tag considerably lower.
US national security advocates have been dedicated to ensuring the protection of the U.S. and its allies since the beginning of the nuclear age. Likewise, some would push to reduce the capability to keep our nation safe from the unthinkable consequences of a nuclear war. To date, the champions of the former position have kept those in the latter camp at bay. Let’s keep it that way.
The views expressed are those of the author and not of any other affiliation.
Read more from Dave Patterson.
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