A panel created to assess United States’ nuclear forces maintains the Pentagon’s $75 billon a year modernization program is “not sufficient” to counter advances by Russia and China and calls on military planners to swiftly update aging weapons, incorporate new technologies, and expand space capabilities—not to sustain a strategic advantage, but to keep pace.
During a two-hour, deeply detailed Nov. 15 hearing before the House Armed Services Committee, the commission’s report was questioned—primarily by Democrats—for not prioritizing the most pressing needs, including cost estimates, or offering policy revisions.
None of that was in the commission’s purview, explained Chair Madelyn Creedon, a former National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) deputy administrator and Assistant Defense Secretary, and Vice Chair Jon Kyl, who represented Arizona in the U.S. Senate from 1995-2013.
“Our commission was not to develop a cost analysis,” Mr. Kyl said. “You could consider that a bit of a cop-out, but the reality is, it'd be very hard for us to do that because much of what needs to be done in the future has yet to be decided.”
The report and its 81 recommendations “lays decisions on the doorstep of the Defense Department, the administration, and Congress,” Ms. Creedon said. Although “hard-hitting, it is also fairly subtle and requires a careful reading. This subtlety has led to some confusion about what the report does and does not recommend.”
Ms. Creedon said the commission does not recommend “substantial increases in the U.S. nuclear force posture. We want to avoid a new nuclear arms race and most importantly, we want to avoid a nuclear conflict. And, thus, we need a credible conventional and nuclear deterrent.”
And that “credible” deterrent’s credibility is rapidly waning, House Armed Services Committee Chair Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ark.) said.
“For the first time since the dawn of the atomic era, the United States must deter two nuclear-peer adversaries simultaneously,” he said, citing China’s “breathtaking strategic breakout” and warning that “the pace of its rapid nuclear buildup, will only accelerate in the coming years.”
Mr. Rogers said Russia maintains the world’s largest and most diverse nuclear arsenal it “continues to expand. Most alarming is its stockpile of non-strategic [tactical] nuclear weapons,” a non-treaty category of weapons it has “at least a 10-to-1 advantage over the U.S.”
Both are developing new capabilities designed to avoid early warning systems to “give both nations the ability to launch surprise nuclear attacks,” he said, noting, “meanwhile, North Korea’s nuclear arsenal is rapidly expanding and growing in sophistication, and Iran is within a few days from having enough enriched uranium to build a bomb.”
Among recommendations or proposals it presents to Congress is expanding the nation’s nuclear weapons defense industrial base, rebuilding each leg of the nuclear triad, scaling up offensive and defensive space weapons, and upgrading conventional missile capacities, particularly hypersonics, between 2027-35.
“What we primarily say here is we have to make decisions now to make sure that we have the capacity to build whatever we’re going to need to build. We’re not sure right now what all of that is,” Mr. Kyl said. “If we don’t make decisions now to enable us to have the capacity, then when we finally do decide, it is going to be too late if we haven’t provided for sufficient capacity.”
Playing Catch-UpRep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), the committee’s ranking Democrat, said “the big thing missing” is a “prioritization of costs associated with the recommendations. It makes it difficult for us to determine how to move forward without those and lends itself to those who say we should just do everything everywhere, all at once. That, of course, is not possible but it also could be dangerous.”
“We don’t have an endless budget, and the cost of these modernization programs continue to grow and schedules are delayed further and further,” Rep. Salud Carbajal (D-Calif.) said.
“Interestingly,” he continued, “the report did not include any cost estimates because, I guess, they shouldn’t matter. If you had included a cost analysis, would it have impacted any of your recommendations?”
Not at all, Mr. Kyl said.
“We took into account the fact that our military, as our defense secretaries and joint chiefs chairmen have all said routinely, strategic deterrence is the number one priority,” he said. “And if that is the case, then we decided to recommend what we felt was necessary and leave it up to you and the president to determine precisely what programs are to be funded.”
Committee members asked how many nuclear weapons are needed before they are redundant? What does “winning” a nuclear war actually mean? Why doesn’t the report discuss resuming strategic arms talks with the Russians and reaching an accord with China? Why does the report endorse adding nuclear weapons, which would accelerate an arms race and lead to proliferation?
“I’m a little sensitive to that critique because it reveals to me that a misunderstanding of the facts exists today,” Mr. Kyl said.
After the Cold War ended with the demise of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, “the United States allowed our nuclear weapons and the delivery systems to atrophy,” he said. “Not long after that, Russia began a program of modernizing its forces, to the point that today, Russia is about 90 percent through its program of modernization, and that has resulted in a wide array of both weapons and delivery systems.”
Also, over the last 20 years, “China decided to build up its military in a way unseen since the Cold War. And it is quite a ways down the road toward achieving its goal, which is parity with the United States and Russia, especially with regard to the nuclear forces,” Mr. Kyl said.
The United States, meanwhile, did nothing, and only in the last few years has it got “out of the starting blocks” of modernizing its nuclear capacities, he said.
“So that’s where we are,” Mr. Kyl said. “We’re obviously not starting anything. We’re playing catch-up, and it’s going to be a pretty tough job to catch up.”