The return of great power competition is on and Washington wants to ensure its weapons are modern and able to deter any enemy.
by Kris Osborn
It would appear clear that the Pentagon has no plans to abandon its nuclear weapons arsenal but rather likely expand it considerably along with its massive ongoing modernization campaign to deliver new intercontinental ballistic missiles, stealth bombers, low-yield weapons, nuclear hypersonic missiles and new air-dropped nuclear-bomb variants.
A vigorous nuclear weapons program has been underway in recent years, including rapid progress with the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent new ICBM program and continued upgrades to the old Minuteman III missiles. In addition, the military is engineering new low-yield nuclear warheads for the submarine-launched Trident II D5 nuclear missile, constructing a Long-Range Stand-Off weapon nuclear-armed cruise missiles and a new integrated B-61 air-dropped bomb.
All of these programs have reached milestones and gained considerable traction in the last several years, a dynamic setting the stage for a more resilient, reliable and capable weapons arsenal as the Pentagon moves into future years. Many lawmakers from both parties, as well as senior Pentagon leaders and other weapons developers, have long maintained that the U.S. nuclear arsenal needed to be massively overhauled and expanded.
These factors may be one reason why DoD and the Department of Energy plan to sustain and even expand production of nuclear materials such as plutonium.
“Provide the enduring capability to produce 80 plutonium pits per year during 2030 by expanding plutonium pit production capabilities,” The Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration The Fiscal Year 2021 Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan—Biennial Plan Summary, states.
This is significant in a number of respects as it offers an indication of current long-range thinking, which seems to at least in part be grounded in the concept that modern, lethal nuclear weapons will likely figure prominently in any deterrence posture for years into the future. This may indicate that, regardless of the extent of potentially successful nuclear arms reductions or limitations negotiations in coming years, the need for substantial, modern and highly effective nuclear deterrence is expected to continue. There are many potential reasons for this, perhaps several of which may seem overly obvious.
Both Russia and China are well known to be making huge amounts of rapid progress with nuclear modernization to include new weapons, weapons upgrades and large-scale expansions in the number of nuclear weapons maintained. What this means, among other things, is that regardless of any potential progress between great powers at the negotiating table, the need for a major U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal will continue. Another interesting variable associated with this is likely the simple recognition that nuclear weapons capability is likely to keep expanding around the world with smaller, potentially even more dangerous countries such as Iran, North Korea or others.
“Assure a continuous and reliable supply of strategic nuclear weapon components and the key materials that make up the components, to include plutonium, uranium, lithium, tritium, and high explosives In FY 2019, five additional developmental plutonium pits, a key component of nuclear weapons, were completed at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), in Los Alamos, New Mexico, in support of DOE/NNSA’s strategic effort to revitalize U.S. pit production capability,” the DOE report explains.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.