Representative Liz Cheney (R-WY) has received her fair share of coverage lately after her bruising removal from the leadership of the Republican Party. But she still serves on the powerful House Armed Services Committee (HASC) and is a member of the Subcommittee on Strategic Forces. These are crucial in determining the future of U.S. capability to deter Russia and China from attacking the homeland with nuclear weapons. The good news is that Cheney is dead right on U.S. strategic defense capability and the weapons necessary to maintain deterrence. Furthermore, she is a thoughtful voice in advocating that the Department of Defense return to “threat-based planning.”
On May 13, Cheney spoke at the McAleese 12th annual FY2022 Defense Programs Conference, arguing for a Nuclear Triad recapitalization and modernization. The recapitalization initiatives include the Air Force’s new Stealth strategic bomber, the B-21; the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent (replacement for the Minuteman III ICBMs); and the Columbia Class ICBM missile submarines.
Cheney explained that the modernization programs could be jeopardized by the inflationary impact of Biden’s stimulus funding crowding out defense programs. She declared that the Defense Department should be made whole before climate-change spending mandates from the White House start tapping into defense budgets. This warning to the DoD comes none too soon. Cheney’s Democratic colleague on the strategic forces subcommittee and chairman of the HASC-readiness subcommittee, Representative John Garamendi (D-CA), believes the current Minuteman III missiles can have their service life extended.
Brian Everstine, reporting in Air Force Magazine, said that Garamendi visited a Minuteman III ICBM wing at F.E. Warren Air Force Base, WY. Following his trip, Garamendi discussed what he had learned. While he “is convinced of the need for nuclear modernization,” unnamed “top USAF officials have ‘confirmed’ to him that the ICBMs can be life extended and still remain useful.” Continuing with this notion, Garamendi told a virtual Arms Control Association audience, “This single, common-sense step [life extension] could save $37 billion.”
Countering that point of view is the U.S. Strategic Command leader, Admiral Charles Richard, the person responsible for ensuring that all U.S. ground-based missiles are in the highest state of readiness.
Air Force Magazine reported on Richard’s testimony before Congress that:
” … there is ‘no operational margin’ left in the ICBM and that it is at risk of ‘losing credibility to potential adversaries or not even working at all. A few weeks later, an unarmed Minuteman III shut itself down after the missile’s computer detected a fault during the terminal countdown, aborting the launch.”
Liberty Nation has reported on Admiral Richard’s concerns, emphasizing the specter of Russia and China as formidable competing nuclear powers. Garamendi may be neglecting to factor in the glacial pace at which defense programs move; extending the life of the Minuteman III missiles would take 20 years if the program started tomorrow.
During the McAleese conference, Cheney also raised a fundamental issue underpinning the DoD’s advocacy for defense programs. She chastised the department for not relying on “threat-based” planning, programming, and funding. Cheney was explicit that if the DoD cannot tie its weapon systems budget request to a specific threat, it is challenging for Congress to have clarity on the decisions being made in the Congressional Budget Process.
There is another critical aspect to the threat-based approach. When the Defense Department requests funding for a particular capability, the dollar value of the capability can be converted to battlefield risk. If the military determines that a particular threat requires a specific capability in numbers to meet the threat, that can be priced and a cost determined. Additionally, if Congress funds the capability at the requested amount, then the combat risk may be low to medium for battlefield success. On the other hand, if Congress decides to fund the capability at a lower amount, the combat risk would be higher, perhaps medium to high risk.
Consequently, the increased level of risk would be the responsibility of Congress to determine, not the Department of Defense. Congress, after all, decides what it will fund. Currently, however, many of the DoD’s programs are not tied to a threat. When Congress may cut funding, the Defense Department does not have a threat to argue for increase funding. The level of risk, if increased, falls on the military, not on Congress, where it belongs.
In the years to come, there will be increasing pressure on the defense budget as the priorities of the Biden administration emphasize other imperatives over national security. Cheney and other right-minded colleagues on the HASC and its defense subcommittees should be provided with solid advocacy data and supported with threat-based planning and funding requests.
The views expressed are those of the author and not of any other affiliation.
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