Crisis in Ukraine Prompts Renewed Focus on U.S. Nuclear Posture

By Valerie Insinna

As tensions between Russia and Ukraine escalate, U.S. foreign policy hawks contend that Russian aggression merits a second look at the U.S. military’s uncertain nuclear modernization plans.

Under President Vladimir Putin, Russia has become increasingly anti-democratic and hostile to the United States, said Mark Schneider, senior analyst at the National Institute for Public Policy. For the the United States, this should stir concerns about Russia's nuclear intentions.

"U.S. nuclear modernization programs are minimal. We are basically replacing systems only when they're 40 to 80 years of age,” he said March 19 on Capitol Hill. "Assuming everything went perfectly [with future budgets], and we actually had the funding, nothing [new] will be operational before 2020."

Putin announced Russia’s annexation of the Ukrainian province of Crimea on Tuesday. Since then, Russian forces have seized Crimean bases and pushed out Ukrainian forces, according to reports. During Putin’s two presidencies, Russia has invaded two countries – Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine. Putin previously held the presidency from 2000 to 2008.

"In both the Russian actions in Georgia and the Ukraine, the U.S. unfortunately made no significant effort to deter the events before they happened, and no real penalty was imposed on Russia for what it did in these situations,” Schneider said.

President Barack Obama on March 20 announced sanctions against Russian officials and Putin allies.

The U.S. nuclear triad — comprised of land-based ballistic missiles, long-range bombers and submarines that can launch ballistic missiles — is aging and in need of modernization or replacement. Russia’s military activities in Ukraine may push the U.S. government to move forward with procuring new weapons, said Loren Thompson, an analyst at the Lexington Institute, an Arlington, Va.-based think tank.

The most expensive leg of the triad to modernize is the Ohio-class submarine replacement, which the Navy wants to begin building in 2021. At about $6 billion per copy, the service will likely struggle to fit procurement costs into its shipbuilding budget, which is about $15 billion per year.

The Air Force also intends to purchase a long-range strike bomber at $550 million per aircraft to replace the B-2 and B-52, Undersecretary of the Air Force Eric Fanning said earlier in March. He indicated that the price of the aircraft is causing the service to cut back on desired capabilities.

Although the Air Force plans to start building the new bombers in the mid 2020s, officials want to delay certification for nuclear operation until the 2040s, Thompson said. “If concern about a resurgent Russian threat persists, though, it may move up the date when the new bomber can contribute to nuclear deterrence,” he wrote in a March 20 editorial for Forbes.

The service soon must also decide whether to upgrade its collection of Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles or pursue new delivery vehicles. It is conducting an analysis of alternatives due later this year.

“The most important military consideration that Vladimir Putin overlooked in mounting his annexation of Crimea is how it would bolster the resolve of western nations to maintain their defenses. … Many people in Washington might have been prepared to forego spending money on a new generation of nuclear weapons before Putin made his move, but he has now changed the strategic calculation,” Thompson said.

Meanwhile, Russia is building its next-generation nuclear fleet. The first of the country’s new Yasen-class attack submarine was delivered last year.

"The announced program involves modernization of about 98 percent of the ground-based ICBM force by 2021. They have announced a new heavy bomber which would be deployed somewhere around 2025 if they’re successful,” Schneider said. “The current pattern of modernization basically is one [in which] we will see complete modernization of Russia's nuclear portfolio before we modernize anything."

Schneider argued that the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty had the opposite effect on Russia than was intended. Instead of decreasing the number of nuclear weapons the country is allowed to have, the treaty contains loopholes that could allow Russia to expand its arsenal, he said.

“For example, the New START treaty does not mention ground mobile ICBMs, and all definitions in the treaty were changed to exclude coverage of ground mobile ICBMs. And they also eliminated the START treaty prohibitions on air-launched ICBMs or surface ship-launched ICBMS,” he said. “Together those are very large loopholes that can be exploited to achieve capabilities far in excess of what's notionally permissible under the New START treaty."

Since that treaty was signed in 2010, Russia has announced increases to its intercontinental and submarine-launched ballistic missile fleets, he said. It plans to produce 400 new ICBM and SLBMs before 2020.

Schneider believes one of those new weapons, the RS-26, is an intermediate-range missile that would be illegal under the 1987 intermediate-range nuclear forces treaty.

Because the Obama administration has not called attention to Russian nuclear treaty violations, Congress should press executive branch officials to respond publicly to questions on arms control issues, said Paula DeSutter, former assistant secretary of state for verification, compliance, and implementation during the George W. Bush administration. 

Topics: Bomb and Warhead, Missile Defense, Shipbuilding, Submarines

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