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To say that traditional national security and defense issues pass under the parapets of today’s partisan political fields of fire is an understatement, with two notable exceptions. The first is the overall level of military spending, but that’s just a matter of quibbling; the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives reduced the defense budget by just $20 billion or so from the $750 billion requested by the Trump administration. The second issue, and one that’s very likely to loom large in the presidential campaign, is the matter of nuclear weapons, treaties and, particularly, modernization programs.
The nuclear “triad” of ground-based and submarine-launched ballistic missiles and intercontinental-range bombers has been the basis of American great-power deterrence since the Soviet Union’s first nuclear test in 1949. Be it causation or simply correlation, it is remarkable that there has been no direct great-power war since then. To be sure, proxy and third-party conflicts have abounded, but the motto of the late Air Force’s Strategic Air Command, “Peace is our profession,” deserves more than ridicule.
Yet over the past several decades, the strength of this triad has been slowly deteriorating. Some of this is a choice: long-range bombers are now almost exclusively employed with conventional munitions, and the Cold-War “high-alert” mission has vanished. The Navy’s fleet of 14 Ohio-class ballistic-missile submarines (there are also four of this type that have been converted into cruise-missile carriers) was first deployed in 1981 and the Navy plans to keep each going for 42 years, making it by far the longest-serving submarine in the service’s history. Finally, the Minuteman land-based missile is a design from the 1950s. It will reach the end of its third life-extension program in the middle of the next decade.
In sum, the triad is reaching a crisis of obsolescence at a time when the global nuclear balance is more complex and tenuous than ever. Not only are the Russians and Chinese modernizing their arsenals, the Indians and Pakistanis expanding theirs, but lesser powers like Iran have learned the comparative lessons of Saddam Hussein and the Kim regime in North Korea: Saddam is dead and Kim Jong-Un is not just alive, but very much kicking and twisting American tails. The numbers of nukes remain a fraction of the Cold War arms race, but the number of nuclear variables is greater. This is especially worrisome in regard to China. Beijing has not been a global great power for two centuries, and its behavior — such as in the South China Sea — does not bespeak “stability.” How a man like Xi Jinping, a dictator in a delicate position, might act in a crisis, with Donald Trump as his opposite number, is a good question.
The cost of renewing the deterrent force will be astronomical — easily $300 billion and more in total. But the cost of delaying the effort will not only jack up the price tag but fatally jeopardize the triad. Time is now more important than money.
And it’s not just strategic and geopolitical time but domestic political time that matters, as the House Armed Services Committee’s mark-up of this year’s defense authorization bill attests. Rep. Adam Smith — the panel chairman once regarded as moderate but, after his Seattle-area district was shifted, a primary-endangered species — oversaw a measure to strip out funding for a new low-yield warhead that was the brainchild of the Obama administration and a central pillar of the Trump-era nuclear posture review. Shortly after last fall’s election, Smith announced to the energetic anti-nuke group Ploughshares Fund that he would be leading the assault to roll back nuclear modernization plans.
Smith’s provision cannot survive Senate review, but it’s a leading-edge indicator of what Democrats believe, and certainly what their presidential candidate will do. The party is trapped more tightly than ever in a kind of 1980s “No-Nukes” embrace; Smith vowed to “create a safe, secure world free from the threat posed by these immoral weapons.” One can hear Nena imagining “99 Luftballons” floating in the background.
The problem for the Pentagon is that the Democrats will be shooting at fat, floating targets. Moreover, they don’t so much have to hit any of them, just slow things down. The constrained defense budget topline is their ally, as is the services’ lax approach to nuclear modernization — the problems of aging systems and delayed investment have been decades in the making.
Particularly vulnerable is the Minuteman replacement project, the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) program for which the Air Force is about — at last — to release a request for proposal. Arms-control theology has long argued that land-based missiles are the most provocative element in the deterrent equation, despite the fact that the combination of hard targets and precise and large-scale response makes the missile fields of the Great Plains the most formidable leg of the triad. Perhaps most critically, it’s easier to kill a program before it gets underway and a contract awarded.
This is the moment for the White House to intervene and direct the Air Force to make the GBSD a “national project” on the model of the original ICBM efforts of the 1950s. By forcing the two industry teams, Northrop Grumman and Boeing, which already share a number of subcontractors and must use the same engine provider, to combine would itself save a year on the program schedule. Other schedule savings are no doubt also possible. This is a case where strategic need compels program urgency.
It’s not like this can be a low-profile program, particularly if — as is almost inevitable — the contract award is delayed into next fall’s election season or, even worse but perhaps even more predictable, the award is contested in court. And, with Democrats lashed to the arms-control mast, the issue can be a defining one for the administration. But time is of the essence, not only to save the nuclear triad modernization project as a whole but also to save the GBSD from the Air Force bureaucracy and the inattention of the service leadership.
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