Discussions took place Thursday on Capitol Hill as the Senate Armed Services Committee heard testimony from top Navy brass advocating modernization of America’s aging nuclear triad infrastructure.
The Department of Defense has issued warnings about the need to modernize the maintenance and operations of the nuclear deterrent capability due to the risk of allowing the nuclear triad to become too old to effectively perform its mission, according to a statement by the DoD.
“The majority of this infrastructure is rated as being in no better than fair condition,” the statement reads.
Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment, Ellen M. Lord, said that the “nuclear enterprise has reached a critical juncture beyond which the failure to act will have devastating consequences going into the future.”
The need to update the nuclear deterrents was spelled out in a prepared statement by Lord and Navy Adm. Charles A. Richard, commander of the U.S. Strategic Command, adding that the aging weapons production infrastructure dates back to the 1950s.
At the hearing, the pair showed a collage of images of some of their tired and dated facilities.
Their conclusion is that nearly all of the systems that are currently a part of the nuclear deterrent are beyond their original service lives and can no longer be cost-effectively maintained to meet future requirements, according to the Navy leaders’ testimony.
According to Defense Secretary Dr. Mark T. Esper, “The nuclear strategic triad is the most important part of our military. It’s key to our nation’s defense. It provides that strategic nuclear deterrent that we depend on day after day — that we’ve depended on decade after decade.”
The three legs of the nation’s nuclear triad, defending the land, air and sea, consist of Minuteman Missiles, “Boomer” submarines and B-52 Bombers. The compilation of platforms and weapons serves as the backbone of the nation’s national security, providing around-the-clock deterrence to prevent any catastrophic strikes from America’s enemies and to deliver decisive responses, anywhere, anytime, according to the DoD.
The first leg of the triad, the Minuteman, is a strategic weapon system of intercontinental ballistic missiles dispersed in silos and connected to an underground launch center, where two-officer launch crews perform around-the-clock alerts.
The second and most survivable leg of the nuclear triad is made up of ballistic missile submarines called “boomers” and are on constant patrol with enough firepower to make one “boomer” the sixth most powerful nuclear power in the world.
Fourteen undetectable Ohio-class SSBNs are the stealth “boomers” that are the platforms for submarine-launched ballistic missiles. The Columbia-class SSBN program is slated to start replacing the Ohio-class “boomers” in the early 2030s.
The third and most flexible leg of the nuclear triad is the nation’s bomber fleet which consists of 46 nuclear-capable B-52H Stratofortress and 20 B-2A Spirit aircraft capable of providing massive firepower in a short length of time anywhere on the globe. The long-range bombers, which can perform a variety of missions, carry nuclear guided weapons with precision navigation and are slated to be in service beyond 2040, according to the DoD.
Recapitalization of the nuclear triad involves new submarines, such as the Columbia-class ballistic missile submarines; new intercontinental ballistic missiles as part of the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent program; and new bomber aircraft, such as the B-21 Raider, according to Navy Adm. Richard.
“Today, we face a complex and volatile global security environment with a wide range of challenges. We will meet those challenges and we stand ready to keep the peace, and if necessary, win the war on land, at sea, in the air, in space and cyberspace,” said Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark A. Milley in a DoD statement.
Pointing out a stark reality, the long-standing and repeated warning about the need to modernize and recapitalize the U.S. nuclear deterrent, Lord said during her testimony “The tipping point in recapitalization that we have long tried to avoid is here. And we believe the condition of the nuclear enterprise now poses possibly the greatest risk to deterrence.”
On behalf of the Nuclear Weapons Council, Lord thanked the committee and urged full support of NNSA’s budget request.
“DOD has embarked upon the first recapitalization of our triad since the end of the Cold War, and we cannot do it alone,” she said.