No Way Out: Why the Bowls of Wrath are Coming: Revelation 16

No Way Out: Why Nuclear Modernization Is Necessary (In Six Slides)

Loren ThompsonSenior Contributor

Aerospace & Defense

I write about national security, especially its business dimensions.

Last week I participated in an online panel about modernizing the U.S. strategic arsenal sponsored by the Advanced Nuclear Weapons Alliance. ANWA, as it is called, is one of the few think tanks in Washington that focuses on the enduring requirements of nuclear deterrence—and what might happen if those requirements are not met.

Since all the other participants on the panel had credentials superior to my own, I decided that rather than just bloviating I should assemble a PowerPoint brief setting forth the case for nuclear modernization in simple terms. Here is the resulting presentation, which I call “No Way Out: Why Nuclear Modernization Is Necessary.”

The above slide illustrates what would happen if a 500-kiloton nuclear warhead of the type common in the Russian strategic arsenal were detonated above an American city. Distance in miles from the blast is depicted at the bottom of the diagram, and the corresponding level of damage at the top. The numbers within the diagram describe pounds of blast pressure per square inch above normal atmospheric pressure (14.7 pounds at sea level).

Roughly 98% of all people within the circle where 12 psi of overpressure or higher occurs would be killed quickly. There would be extensive fatalities outside that circle too, with survivors frequently suffering skull fractures, eardrum failures, severe lacerations, radiation poisoning and/or burns. But calling 911 would be pointless, because all networks would be destroyed and electronic devices would be rendered inoperable by electromagnetic pulse.

Russia has roughly 700 warheads of this explosive power aimed at America, plus a larger number of warheads with lesser yields.

There is no practical way of defending the U.S. against a large-scale nuclear attack. If even 5% of warheads in the Russian arsenal were to reach U.S. shores, that would be sufficient to destroy America’s economy and social fabric. So, U.S. strategy is to deter an attack by threatening potential aggressors with unacceptable retaliation. By sustaining a “triad” of nuclear forces that can retaliate no matter how powerful a surprise attack might be, Washington seeks to assure that no enemy will have a rational justification for launching its nuclear weapons.

However, all of the weapons in the nuclear triad that would be used to retaliate have grown old. They will need to retire after 2030, and that means the government must develop replacements in this decade. Any delay in the modernization process would result in the United States unilaterally disarming due to the advanced age of its strategic arsenal.


Maintaining and modernizing the nuclear triad does not preclude shrinking the size of the nuclear arsenal. The number of nuclear warheads in the Russian and American arsenals today is a small fraction of their number at the peak of Cold War nuclear buildups. It also is not hugely expensive to modernize the nuclear arsenal: in previous nuclear investment cycles it cost over 10% of the defense budget to sustain and upgrade the strategic arsenal in peak spending years. If current modernization plans are fully executed, sustaining and improving the nuclear triad will claim only 6.4% of the defense budget in the peak year of 2030.

The Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines that carry two-thirds of all warheads in the U.S. strategic arsenal must begin retiring at the end of this decade (they are already operating on life extensions). Because they are highly survivable when at sea and provide an assured retaliatory capability that is essential to deterrence, the Navy considers their replacement its top investment priority. The plan is to build 12 Columbia-class subs, each carrying 16 D5 ballistic missiles with multiple warheads. The lead ship in the Columbia class must conduct its first deterrence patrol in 2031.


Land-based Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles have been deployed in underground silos in the upper Midwest since 1970. They have long since exceeded their original design lives and will not be reliable after 2030. In the absence of 400 ICBMs—each of which would need to be separately targeted in a surprise attack—Russia would be able to disarm the U.S. by destroying less than 20 targets. Experts do not expect attackers would be able to target U.S. submarines at sea in the near future, but ICBMs are a hedge against future breakthroughs in antisubmarine warfare that might call into question the credibility of U.S. retaliatory capabilities.


All of the aircraft in America’s nuclear-capable bomber fleet will need to carry air-launched cruise missiles in the future to penetrate enemy air defenses. Even the new and highly survivable B-21 bomber may need the range-extending capabilities of a next-generation standoff weapon to reach the full array of strategic targets. The current cruise missile carried by U.S. strategic bombers was deployed four decades ago with a projected service life of ten years; it cannot function much longer, and therefore must be replaced by a “Long Range Standoff (LRSO) weapon to assure the retaliatory capability of the triad’s bomber force.

The bottom line on nuclear modernization plans is that Washington has waited as long as possible to replace its aging deterrent. If it delays any longer, the ability of the force to deter nuclear attack in a crisis will become doubtful.

Several companies with a stake in the nuclear modernization program contribute to my think tank.

Check out my website.

Loren Thompson

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