This week, top military officers launched their big push on Capitol Hill for a total overhaul of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, at an estimated cost of $1.3 trillion over the next 30 years, and their top rationale—the go-to rationale for just about every large federal program these days—was the threat from China.
Their case was less than compelling.
Yes, China is displaying some bellicose behavior these days, economically, politically, and militarily. But a new generation of U.S. intercontinental ballistic missiles, bombers, cruise missiles, and submarines would do nothing to deal with the problem.
Adm. Charles Richard, the head of U.S. Strategic Command, which runs plans and operations for the nuclear arsenal, laid out his case in hearings before House and subcommittees on strategic forces. He noted that China is expanding its nuclear arsenal at an “unprecedented” pace, on course to double in size by the end of the decade. It’s building more solid-fuel missiles, which can be launched right away (older liquid-fuel missiles require hours to load). It’s also building better early-warning radar, putting some of its ICBMs on trucks and moving them around. It might have adopted a launch-on-warning policy.
But all of this adds up to something less alarming than Richard’s rhetoric suggested—namely that the People’s Liberation Army is improving its ability to detect, and respond to, a nuclear attack on the Chinese homeland. Even if the Chinese doubled the size of their arsenal, which would give them about 600 nuclear weapons instead of the current 300, it would be well under half the size of the U.S. arsenal, so they would have no ability to launch a first strike against us.
In other words, China seems to be building a more potent second-strike arsenal—what we in the West would call a deterrent—perhaps in the face of Russia’s build-up of medium-range missiles and America’s development of a missile-defense force. This is troubling only to the extent it means that the United States would have a hard time launching a nuclear first-strike against China.
This is a bit troubling, but for reasons that seem less so, the more deeply the problem is analyzed. China’s military strategy is to establish hegemony in the region—especially in the Taiwan Straits and the South China Sea—and to prevent U.S. air and naval forces from intervening in this area. Beijing has made progress toward this goal by declaring some small islands, which are clearly in international waters, to be Chinese territory and converting them into military bases. It has also built and deployed hundreds of missiles that can attack ships, even large ones, with steadily improving accuracy and steadily longer range. China has also improved its ability to hit satellites and sensors in outer space (through cyber and more conventional means). Again, the goal is to keep the U.S. from intervening in Chinese military ventures. The American trump card in any such conflict has long been its nuclear arsenal (whether any president actually would use nukes to protect, say, Taiwan is another matter), but if China has its own potent nuclear deterrent, this card’s value is reduced: if we attack them, they can attack us.
But there are ways to maintain U.S. leverage in this scenario—to continue deterring China from thinking they might get away with aggression. These ways include making satellites and sensors more resilient to cyberattack (or building more of them, for redundancy); restructuring the Navy (a longer-term project); and shoring up alliances in the region (China’s belligerence has already made powers in the region more willing to ally with the U.S.).
However, the main point is this: We would gain no leverage in this scenario by building new ICBMs, bombers, cruise missiles, or submarines. To the extent these sorts of weapons loom as the ultimate deterrent, as a sort of overlord to any military competition, we already have plenty.
Richard disputed this point. He claimed in both hearings that, before too long, we won’t be able to deter Russia or China because our nuclear weapons—all of them decades old—are approaching obsolescence.
This is true for the 14 Ohio-class ballistic-missile submarines, each of which carries 24 missiles, each of which is loaded with up to eight nuclear warheads—or 192 warheads for each sub. As Richard testified, the first of these subs will be retired in six years. The lifetime of a submarine is limited: at some point, the nuclear core goes out, the wear and tear start straining, and every time the thing goes underwater, the odds grow long that it might not come back up. Because subs are undetectable and therefore invulnerable to attack, they are the best platforms for second-strike weapons—the most reliable deterrent. Even most disarmament advocates are in favor of retaining submarine-launched ballistic missiles. And they need to be replaced every now and then.
As for the other two legs of the nuclear “Triad” (the land-based ICBMs and the bombers), the case is less clear. The 400 Minuteman III ICBMs were built in the 1970s. They have undergone several “life-extension programs”—new warheads, new software, new launch-control gear. “We have life-extended to the maximum extent possible,” Richard testified. Therefore, he said, we now a new ICBM, which is known as the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent, or GBSD. (At least one officer in the Pentagon’s Joint Staff has suggested coming up with a catchier name.)
However, in a 2019 hearing, Lt. Gen. Richard Clark, then the Air Force deputy chief of staff for strategic deterrence, testified that the Minuteman III could undergo one more round of life-extension, taking it through at least 2040. At last week’s House hearing, Rep. John Garamendi, California Democrat, asked Richard about this testimony. Richard replied that the need for a new missile was cited in a study by the Air Force (the service that funds ICBMs), noting that he’s just the operational commander. Richard also claimed that the Minuteman III warheads might get shot down by Russia’s missile-defense systems—a claim that has no basis whatever.
As for bombers, the current B-52s were built in the 1960s, but they’ve been modified so many times, in so many ways (they’re now called the B-52H), they’re hardly the same planes. For one thing, rather than drop bombs over some target in Russia or China, they’re designed to fire cruise missiles 1,500 miles away from the target. Richard said that the B-52H could continue flying till 2060. But he still insisted that we need a new bomber, known as the B-21, and a new cruise missile, the Long-Range Stand-Off weapon, as well as a nuclear sea-launched cruise missile. Congress should scrutinize these claims rather than accept them.
President Biden’s national-security team is currently conducting a review of the U.S. nuclear-weapons strategy and posture. It is very unlikely that the review will endorse the full modernization of the arsenal, at least in the numbers that military commanders desire. Biden’s priorities clearly lie elsewhere (climate change, infrastructure, economic competitiveness, education, social programs, scientific research, etc.), and his budget reflects that. Even within the Defense Department, there are more urgent needs that will soak up a lot of money.
Richard and other senior officers know this, which is why they’re pulling out all the stops in making the case for new nukes. This week’s hearings marked the first public roll-out of the arguments, but they’ve been rehearsed in trade journals and conferences for some time now. Last fall, the Trump administration awarded Northrop Grumman a $13.3 billion sole-source contract to start developing the new ICBM, in an attempt to lock in the project and make it harder for anyone to kill it outright. Northrop Grumman had lined up more than a dozen subcontractors—including Lockheed Martin and General Dynamics, which are normally its chief competitors—in order to widen support in Congress.
There will be fierce resistance to any slowdown of the strategic juggernaut. Most members of the congressional armed services committees regard the Nuclear Triad with the same veneration that Catholics bestow to the Holy Trinity. When they ask a witness if he believes in the Triad, they do so with a quivering tone, as if they were priests asking a supplicant if he believes in God.
At the same time, budget pressures are rousing some lawmakers to mull, a bit more deeply than before, whether so many nukes are necessary, whether they all have to be 100 percent reliable to deter adversaries from aggression, whether the recondite scenarios and theories of the nuclear game are quite real. It’s long past time to demystify the nuclear enterprise, to strip away the fear and trembling, and ask how many weapons are needed to do what.