Nuclear war seems so passe. The Soviet Union collapsed nearly a quarter-century ago. The war in the shadows of counterinsurgency and counterterrorism has defined a generation of combat. Yet earlier this month, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel convened the nation’s senior military leaders for an emergency meeting on America’s nuclear force. Firings, cheating and drug scandals, and continued inspection failures have resulted in a crisis for what once was the symbol of U.S. strength.
Even more worryingly, just as America’s nuclear warriors struggle to regain the confidence of the country’s civilian leadership, our two-decade nuclear holiday is ending. Contrary to President Obama’s dream of a “global zero” future without nuclear weapons, proliferation of the world’s most dangerous weapons is increasing. The Pentagon must revitalize its strategic forces or face the dangers of becoming increasingly unable to respond to a more unstable world of nuclear powers.
Even as America’s strategic force took second place to nation building and Middle East wars in recent years, the global nuclear balance shifted permanently. Though Washington refuses to admit it, North Korea became a nuclear-capable state that also obtained long-range ballistic missile capability. Despite the assurances of the Obama Administration, Iran has secured for itself a breathing space while international negotiations allow it to continue building its nuclear program largely unmolested from the world community.
China, meanwhile, has just tested a mobile long-range ballistic nuclear missile that can hit U.S. targets, which is just part of their expanding nuclear capability. They also have begun building a ballistic missile submarine force. India and Pakistan continue to earn analysts’ predictions that their border is the most likely spot on earth for a nuclear exchange. Each recently has fielded new missiles for their nuclear forces. To top it off, Vladimir Putin is modernizing Russia’s massive nuclear and missile force as he regains Moscow’s influence in Europe and Asia.
Yet while the world has been embracing the atomic bomb, the U.S. nuclear mission degraded. Only the U.S. and UK, among all declared nuclear powers, are not currently modernizing either their weapons inventory or delivery systems. Standards in the U.S. nuclear force have also fallen. The Air Force suffered a series of embarrassing mishaps in the 2000s, for example, mistakenly ferrying live nuclear weapons across the country and shipping nuclear triggers to Taiwan. The deputy commander of U.S. Strategic Command, the successor to the Cold War Strategic Air Command, was relieved of duty in October 2014 for using fake poker chips at a casino, which is a criminal offense. A week later, the Air Force very publicly fired the two-star general in charge of America’s 450 ICBM’s for personal misconduct while on an official visit to Moscow. In January, the news came that dozens of ICBM launch teams cheated on tests.
Now, the specter of a beleaguered U.S. nuclear force facing a world with stronger nuclear powers and more proliferation is causing a mini-renaissance of the nuclear mission. There is no question that the country’s senior nuclear leaders are committed to revitalizing their mission and instilling the “exemplary leadership and personal conduct above reproach” needed to operate the world’s most dangerous weapons, as current Deputy Commander of U.S. Strategic Command Lieutenant General James Kowalski recently told me.
Yet the Obama Administration must move more quickly to plan for a future in which nuclear weapons are likely to play a greater role in national defense. Hard as it may be to accept, Dr. Strangelove is back.
The Air Force is only just beginning developing a next generation bomber to replace its half-century old B-52s, 1980s-era B-1s, and tiny force of 20 B-2’s from the 1990s. While bombers evoke Cold War images, they will be increasingly important in the coming decades. Unlike missiles, bombers can be recalled, which is a vital part of America’s response to the proliferation of nuclear capabilities to rogue regimes like Iran, as well as a flexible deterrent to major nuclear powers such as China. It needs to be remembered that we have no effective hotline with Beijing or other types of understanding such as existed between Moscow and Washington even in the dark days of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
The U.S. Navy is beginning work on the successor to its 14 Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines, which carry roughly half of America’s operationally deployed nuclear forces, and are the most survivable of all U.S. nuclear forces. The SSBN(X) will need to have a 40-year service life starting around 2030, but with an estimated cost of $6-8 billion each, the program will face budget battles. Even America’s land-based nuclear missiles are being eyed for replacement, given that the Minuteman III ICBM entered service beginning in 1970 and finished production in 1978. Our nuclear weapons, too, need updating, since our current warheads were designed and built from the 1960s (for the gravity dropped bombs) to the 1980s (for the latest land-based ballistic missiles).
As this nuclear renaissance gains steam, funds for nuclear modernization and upkeep must not be reduced, despite budget cuts affecting the overall military. There must remain a full commitment to the Long Range Strike Bomber and SSBN(X), in particular, as well as to extending the life of the warheads. The expense of the nuclear enterprise, expected to cost $132 billion over the next decade, is daunting in an age of austerity, but the specter of more nuclear weapons in the hands of aggressive or unstable regimes around the globe is a reminder that security never comes cheaply.
In conjunction with modernization, stressing the importance of nuclear weapons will help reduce the low morale and cheating among missile crews. More robust intellectual engagement is also needed. In December, Air Force Global Strike Command ran its first nuclear wargame, codenamed Strategic Vigilance, in response to the new threat environment. This is the right approach. To it should be added the encouragement of a new generation of civilian nuclear thinkers with insight into political and economic factors that can be embraced by U.S. Strategic Command and its subordinate nuclear commands.
While the days of the iconic SAC may be over, the nuclear triad is sure to become far more important over the next twenty years than it has been for the last twenty. The dramatic uncertainty that will result from an Iranian nuclear capability or a North Korean weapon, not to mention fears about a stronger nuclear China and Russia, will make strategic vulnerability at home once again at the forefront of security planning. Political leaders today must start thinking again how nuclear weapons fit into the larger mosaic of America’s security plans in an increasingly uncertain future.