Loren Thompson, Contributor
National security is shaping up to be the top issue in next year’s presidential election. The media are awash in worries about terrorism and cyber attacks, with President Obama generally getting low marks for his handling of threats. Republican presidential candidates say he has no coherent strategy for dealing with the danger posed by radical jihadists, and complain that he has deprived the military of the funding needed to protect America.
However, there is one facet of national security — arguably the most important one — where President Obama is turning out to be a real hardliner. That area is nuclear weapons. Obama has backed investment in new nuclear delivery systems, upgraded warheads, resilient command networks, and industrial sites for fabricating nuclear hardware that, when added to the expense of maintaining the existing arsenal, will cost $348 billion between 2015 and 2024. At least, that’s what the Congressional Budget Office estimated earlier this year. If the Obama plan continues to be funded by his successors, it will be the biggest U.S. buildup of nuclear arms since Ronald Reagan left the White House.
This isn’t what most observers expected from Obama. A longtime supporter of nuclear disarmament, he gave a speech shortly after being inaugurated in 2009 highlighting “America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.” He backed up that commitment with concrete actions. When his administration completed the third post-Cold War review of America’s nuclear posture in April of 2010, it called for “a multilateral effort to limit, reduce, and eventually eliminate all nuclear weapons worldwide.” A nuclear arms pact signed with Russia the same year called for cutting the number of warheads in the strategic arsenal to a quarter of the level agreed to in 1991 — about 1,500. The New York Times reported early the following year the administration wanted to cut the warhead count yet again to 1,000.
That doesn’t sound like much of an arsenal for a country that had over 30,000 nuclear warheads the year Obama began elementary school. Granted, there are several thousand additional warheads in storage or not counted by the 2010 pact, but the general trend in inventory levels has been down, down and down, and the Obama Administration began its time in office planning to stay on that vector. So what changed?
What changed was that the White House ceased believing it could work with Russia at a time when much of the Cold War nuclear arsenal was reaching an advanced state of decay. With prospects for further arms reduction agreements rapidly receding, the administration decided it had to move forward with modernization of the entire nuclear enterprise. Although plans to sustain a nuclear “triad” of land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, sea-based ballistic missiles, and long-range nuclear bombers had been endorsed by the 2010 posture review, the White House initially appeared ambivalent about spending the money needed to revitalize the nuclear arsenal. But any resistance to “recapitalizing” the arsenal disappeared after Russia began threatening Eastern Europe, and conducting nuclear exercises seemingly aimed at scaring the West.
So now Barack Obama, the longtime proponent of nuclear disarmament, finds himself presiding over a vast reconstruction of the nation’s strategic force, not to mention the introduction of new aircraft and weapons for conducting tactical nuclear operations in places like Europe. The basic goal is to dissuade any enemy from nuclear aggression by fielding a resilient retaliatory force that can survive a surprise attack, and then destroy the assets that matter most to the aggressor. The strategy is called deterrence, and in the absence of active defenses capable of intercepting a nuclear attack, it is the main bulwark America has against a threat that could destroy the Republic in a single day. Here are the key elements of the Obama buildup.
A new ballistic missile submarine. The U.S. Navy’s 14 Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines are the most survivable part of the nuclear triad, but the subs will begin retiring at the rate of one per year toward the end of the next decade. To have a replacement ready, the Obama Administration is pushing ahead with the Ohio Replacement Program which will commence construction of a new class of subs in 2021. There will be twelve such vessels, each carrying 16 ballistic missiles equipped with multiple warheads. General Dynamics GD -0.72% Electric Boat division, builder of the Ohio class, is leading development of the next-generation subs, and will likely perform most of the construction. A separate Navy program is extending the life of the Lockheed Martin LMT -0.93% D5 missiles carried on the Ohio class, and at least initially on its successor. Both the missiles and their improved warheads will be operational for another 30 years.
A new strategic bomber. The airborne part of the nuclear triad currently consists of 76 aged B-52 bombers and 20 newer B-2s, both of which also perform non-nuclear missions. However, a senior Air Force officer told Congress earlier this year that the bombers “are becoming increasingly vulnerable to modern air defenses,” so last month the service awarded a contract to Northrop Grumman for development of a “Long Range Strike Bomber” that will provide 80-100 very stealthy successors beginning in 2025 (loser Boeing is protesting the award). Meanwhile, all of the nuclear missiles and gravity bombs carried on the bombers are being upgraded to extend their lives, improve their accuracy, and assure their safety. A new air-launched cruise missile is also planned, but the administration is taking no chances, pouring billions of dollars into enhancing the performance and connectivity of the existing fleet.
A new intercontinental ballistic missile. The third leg of the nuclear triad consists of 450 Minuteman III missiles deployed in hardened silos at three bases in the western U.S. The Air Force is spending $7 billion to modernize the propulsion systems, guidance, warheads and other elements of the Minuteman force, but the force’s projected service life only extends to 2030. In 2014, the command responsible for managing the missiles conducted an analysis of alternatives for developing a next-generation “Ground Based Strategic Deterrent,” meaning a new ICBM. InsideDefense.com reports that the Air Force will begin operating the new missile in 2027. Missile silos and launch control centers, which have become quite decrepit, will be renovated for decades of additional service. A parallel effort is under way to upgrade the warheads carried on ICBMs, substituting more powerful weapons from the retired MX missile.
An enhanced command, control & communications network. Credible deterrence requires a resilient command system that can ride out a surprise attack and then execute appropriate responses (there are numerous retaliatory options in nuclear war plans). The network of assets supporting this system includes sensors that can detect an attack, flying command posts, hardened underground operations centers, secure communications satellites, and a complex array of links between them. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that administration plans for modernizing the nuclear command and control system will cost $52 billion between 2015 and 2024, with the biggest outlays going to Boeing for flying command posts, Lockheed Martin for satellites, and Northrop Grumman for sensors and networks. Raytheon will also likely be a key player in nuclear-related sensors and networks.
New tactical nuclear systems. Although the Obama nuclear posture has sought to minimize the role of nuclear weapons outside the area of strategic deterrence, the administration faces a practical problem in countering thousands of tactical nuclear systems that Russia has deployed in Europe. Under the doctrine of “extended deterrence,” the U.S. must have credible retaliatory options for dealing with the regional threat that these weapons pose in order to reassure its overseas allies. The administration therefore plans to equip at least some Lockheed Martin F-35 fighters with a capability to deliver tactical nuclear weapons, and is upgrading the inventory of nuclear munitions suitable for conducting such operations.
A revitalized nuclear weapons industrial base. Much of the responsibility for supporting the U.S. nuclear posture resides not in the Department of Defense, but in the Department of Energy. DoE is expected to spend $121 billion between 2015 and 2024 on its nuclear-weapons functions, over a third of the $348 billion spent on the nuclear enterprise during that period. A big chunk of that money will go to the laboratories and industrial facilities involved in researching, refurbishing, modifying or demilitarizing nuclear devices. Although the U.S. no longer builds new nuclear warheads, it is constantly reclaiming nuclear material from old devices and enhancing the features of warheads already in the stockpile. That requires extensive investment in revitalizing the plant and equipment at facilities that often trace their origins to the dawn of the Cold War.
Some might quibble with using the word “buildup” to characterize this sprawling effort, since the Obama Administration does not plan to exceed weapons levels specified in arms reduction agreements. However, the reality is that President Obama is backing efforts to upgrade and replace every nuclear delivery system in the U.S. arsenal, plus the warheads they carry, plus the command networks and industrial base that supports them. None of his recent predecessors undertook nuclear efforts this ambitious — the Arms Control Association says the life-cycle cost of the new submarine alone will be over $300 billion through 2080 — and whether the arsenal shrinks or grows will be left to his successors. So for all of the criticism about Mr. Obama being weak on defense, when it comes to the most fearsome weapons humanity has devised, he will be remembered as the president who kept America on top.
(Disclosure: All of the companies mentioned here have contributed to my think tank at one time or another; some are consulting clients.)