U.S. Needs to Bolster Nuclear Arsenal and Missile Defense, Experts Say
Photo: Jon HarperAs the U.S. nuclear arsenal ages and adversaries develop better long-range missiles, the United States needs to enhance its deterrence capabilities, lawmakers and experts said during a recent high-profile gathering of members of the national security community.
Concerns about North Korea should prod policymakers into action, Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, said during a recent panel discussion at the Reagan National Security Forum in Simi Valley, California.
“At some point we’re going to wake up and our public is going to wake up to the fact that the head of North Korea … is probably going to have the capability to hit our country with an intercontinental ballistic missile with a nuclear warhead on top of it,” he said.
“Is that going to happen in two years or three years or 10 years? We don’t really know. But it is going to happen at some point and … what we need to be doing now is preparing … to have a much more robust missile defense,” he added.
The United States should enhance its tracking and sensor systems and increase the number of interceptors in its arsenal, he argued.
The election of Donald Trump to be the next president bodes well for investment in these capabilities, according to Sullivan.
“It is an area where the president-elect has talked a lot about the need to ramp that up, so I think you’re going to see a lot of focus on missile defense” during his administration, he said.
More investment is needed to ensure that other nations respect U.S. capabilities, said Ellen Tauscher, a Democrat who previously served as under secretary of state for arms control and international security affairs, and special envoy for strategic stability and missile defense.
The existing ground-based system has had mixed results in testing, including failures to intercept mock enemy warheads. That has sparked doubts among adversaries that it could actually do the job, she said.
While bolstering its missile defenses, the United States must also enhance its own nuclear arsenal to strengthen deterrence, the panelists said.
As legacy systems approach the end of their service lives, the Defense Department is moving forward with plans to acquire new intercontinental ballistic missiles, bombers, ballistic missile submarines and air-launched cruise missiles that could deliver nuclear weapons. Warhead modernization is also in the works.
The Pentagon and independent nuclear experts project that the plans, if fully implemented, would cost hundreds of billions of dollars in the coming decades.
The bill to upgrade the nuclear enterprise will be “massive,” said former Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., who now servers as senior counsel at Covington & Burling LLP.
“We’ve allowed it to atrophy and we’ve allowed a lot of obligations to pile up that should have been taken care of” earlier, he said. “All three legs of the triad have basically run out of their life and need to be replaced all at the same time. We should never have allowed that to happen.”
Sullivan expects Congress to spend about $234 billion over the next 10 years on nuclear modernization. The idea of investing more taxpayer dollars in this and missile defense enjoys strong bipartisan support at a time when political gridlock has become the norm in Washington, D.C., he noted.
“That’s a lot of money but I think it’s important enough and it can be done,” he said.
Nevertheless, finding enough funding to meet the nuclear modernization needs of the services won’t be an easy task. The Navy and Air Force also have ambitious plans to modernize their conventional forces during the same period.
The Navy is slated to buy new aircraft carriers, destroyers, attack submarines and fighter jets, among other items. The Air Force intends to procure large quantities of the F-35 joint strike fighter, the B-21 bomber and the KC-46 tanker.
Analysts are warning about the approaching modernization “bow wave” that is expected to hit the Defense Department in the coming years. Senior defense officials recognize that the price tag will be high.
“The real question I think is going to be do we go down the path of trying to recapitalize both nuclear and conventional [assets] at the same time?” Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein told National Defense after the panel discussion concluded.
“That’s what drives the bills,” he said. “We’re going to have to figure out a way to pay for it.”
Lawmakers have created a national sea-based deterrence fund outside of the Navy’s regular shipbuilding account to help pay for the new Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine. National Defense asked Goldfein whether he believes the Air Force should receive similar consideration as it seeks to acquire new nuclear missiles and bombers.
“I don’t know the vehicle that’s the best in terms of whether [the money should come from] this fund or that fund,” he said. “To me, it’s a broader question of how do we as a nation ensure that we are appropriately modernizing both our conventional forces that have atrophied and our nuclear forces that have atrophied. And we’ve got to get at both and there’s probably a number of vehicles we can think about on how to do that.”
The Air Force’s top officer said policymakers should consider the strategic benefits that the nuclear arsenal provides, not just the price tag.
“We tend to get the question, 'Can we afford this?’ I would offer you a different question, can we afford not to do this?” he said.
“You take a look at the two world wars, we had 75 million folks lost” from all the countries involved, he added. “Since the introduction of nuclear weapons we haven’t seen anything close [to that level of casualties among the world’s major powers]. So I think this is something that we have to have a debate on.”