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A Second Chance on Nuclear Modernization

Posted by Bob Butterworth on

Test of a Navy Trident D5 submarine-launched ballistic missile.

Test of a Navy Trident D5 submarine-launched ballistic missile.

The DC debate on the Navy’s new nuclear missile submarines has been about how we can possibly pay for them. In this op-ed, however, frequent Breaking Defense contributor Bob Butterworth takes a step back to look at a much bigger picture. The Navy’s recent admission that it can’t afford the Ohio Replacement Program (ORP) is an opportunity, he argues, a moment of clarity that should force the administration to rethink its plan for the future of the entire nuclear enterprise. In an increasingly dangerous world, he says, he still need nukes, but the world is dangerous in a different way than the Cold War and requires a different kind of thinking about nuclear weapons. — Sydney Freedberg, deputy editor.

Thanks to the Navy, we now have a chance to build a force posture better suited to meeting our future nuclear challenges.

To recap: In 2009 the then-new Obama Administration prepared a Nuclear Posture Review that set out to conclude the country would be safe with fewer deployed nuclear forces. The following year the Administration presented the New START agreement for Senate advice and consent, soon coupling it with a plan to modernize the classic triad by building new ICBMs, new submarines to launch SLBMs, and new nuclear-capable bombers, all to be fielded during the early 2030s and 2040s. New SLBMs for the new “boomers” would then follow. The next year brought a reduced version of this plan, delaying the start of the submarine program by two years and indefinitely deferring  the work to make the new bombers capable of delivering nuclear bombs. This year brought a three-year delay in beginning work on a new air-launched cruise missile.

All this was expected to be very costly, as the delays and deferrals suggest. The Navy’s effort alone was likely to run almost to $100 billion and to take up nearly half the shipbuilding program for several years. And, sure enough, the Navy told Congress in July that the plan to build new subs is “not supportable” without giving the service a lot more money.

And so there may now be a chance to reconsider the whole modernization scheme. With or without delays, the Administration’s plan would simply recapitalize the force posture that had emerged from inter-service competition half a century ago. Is that the best achievable posture for meeting the threats and challenges of the next fifty years? Maybe, but there was not much strategic analysis offered to justify it, and the arguments offered to support it have a distinct superpower-vs.-superpower Cold War flavor. It is hard to see the plan as more than a replay of bureaucratic politics, in which the Air Force and the Navy each surrendered some deployed missiles and outside “blue ribbon” panels reported they could not agree on a better alternative.

While the bureaucratic environment may have remained the same, however, the strategic environment has not. The deterrence targets are different from those of the Cold War. The objectives, calculations, and assessments of regional powers with nuclear weapons — North Korea, Pakistan, India, and soon, perhaps, Iran — are obscure but are definitely different. The operational environment is different, affecting the understanding and evaluation of threats and commitments. The demands for and of extended deterrence are different. The connections between regional conflict and great power interests are different.

Crisis management and escalation control will also be different. Confronting the United States, a regional power with only a few nuclear weapons might use them to start the war, perhaps then quickly suing for peace and expecting international pressures to limit the US response. Or perhaps they might save them to use once our ground forces are deployed or high-value targets are concentrated at ports or airfields.

Our calculations will be different too. If nuclear weapons are first used by the aggressor, whether large or small, the US might not respond in kind, perhaps to keep others from suffering fallout and residual nuclear effects or, in the case of the smaller nuclear aggressors, from provoking others to give them help. The President would have to consider how well our conventional forces might operate in the nuclear environment, whether we had a nuclear weapon with delivery options and effects appropriate to the circumstances at hand, and whether American lives could be saved by using it.

American calculations about nuclear deterrence and defense will also have to account for how our non-nuclear capabilities are being transformed by developments in space and cyberspace. Innovative operations in these domains could provide not only better intelligence but even “non-kinetic effects” — e.g computer hacking — that deny effective command and control to the aggressor. We need to figure out what these capabilities might mean for nuclear scenarios: how they might be used, what vulnerabilities they might present, how they might be coordinated and controlled, what operational synergies might be obtained from the unified command of these operations, whether these US advantages could be neutralized by a weaker adversary’s nuclear weapons.. In particular, we must to assess what policies and strategies would be enabled or precluded by alternative force structures.

Space and cyber operations have also been increasing the “jointness” of the US conventional forces, but that has not seriously included planning for theater nuclear operations. The result may well be failure to develop appropriate options that might strengthen both deterrence and defense. Would our nuclear plans enable us to engage time-urgent battlefield targets? Or could the US only use nuclear weapons, if at all, against more strategic objectives? Any use would call for careful attention to anticipated effects on the target country, other states in the region, the concerns of other, nuclear powers, especially the larger ones, and the effects on future US military operations in the area.

A careful review of all these changes might endorse the current plan as most likely to provide the deterrence and defense forces best suited to the future. But I doubt it. And pressing ahead with outdated rationales to invest heavily in last century’s force posture could provoke further disaffection with the nuclear weapons enterprise. A more flexible structure and posture, more options for adaptive planning and versatile response, would better meet the surprises we are sure to encounter, offer Presidents more options for controlling events, and perhaps even help remedy the oft-decried lack of consensus about our strategic nuclear forces.

Bob Butterworth, a member of the Breaking Defense Board of Contributors, is a consultant and expert on nuclear issues and intelligence. The president of Aries Analytics, Butterworth has been a senior advisor to the head of Space Command, a staffer on the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, and a staff member on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

What do you think?