The U.S. nuclear triad is falling technologically behind its rivals, and in an age where the United States faces not one, but two peer strategic threats, there is no longer margin for error, leaders say. Modernization is not an option, but a necessity.
“We have to keep what we currently have safe, secure, and reliable as we transition to more safe, more secure, and more effective systems that can meet future threats,” said Lt. Gen. James C. Dawkins Jr., USAF deputy chief of staff for strategic deterrence and nuclear integration, during the AFA Warfare Symposium in early March. “The sense of urgency has never been more important. If you’d asked me a year ago, I would have said the same thing, but Ukraine has brought that into sharper focus.”
As Russia launched an unprovoked war in Ukraine in late February, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced to the world he had put his strategic forces on high combat alert, raising tensions to a height not seen since the Cold War. Russia has completed more than 80 percent of its nuclear modernization programs. It’s also aggressively pursuing “novel nuclear weapons concepts” not covered by treaties, and to which the United States doesn’t “have an answer to, other than a strong deterrent,” Dawkins said.
China, with a couple hundred weapons just a few years ago, also is investing heavily in its own nuclear triad. U.S. Strategic Command boss Adm. Charles “Chas” A. Richard told the Senate Armed Services Committee in early March that China is in the midst of a “strategic breakout,” and is on pace to have more than 1,000 nuclear weapons by the end of the decade. China is not a signatory to any strategic arms limitations treaties.
With China’s rapid growth and Russia’s recent aggression along NATO’s eastern flank, modernizing all three legs of the U.S. nuclear triad is the “absolute minimum” that must be done to deter adversaries, Richard told senators.
And though China and Russia are the biggest threats, they aren’t the only ones ringing alarms. North Korea launched seven ballistic missiles in the month of January alone, and the White House announced on March 10 it was putting its Asia-based missile defense units in a state of “enhanced readiness” after North Korea began testing what is believed to be a new ICBM intended to reach American cities.
“We made these revelations public, we announced some of the additional ISR and enhanced readiness we are taking because we believe it’s important to call out the behavior that we’ve been seeing, particularly in the last few weeks,” Pentagon spokesman John F. Kirby said on March 11. “We believe it’s important for the entire international community to speak with one voice about the concerns that we know they have over the DPRK’s continued ballistic missile program. … Clearly, these continued tests are a provocation. They are a violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions and they give us, as well as so many other nations, added concern about the kinds of capabilities that the North is trying to develop.”
Looming Bow Wave
The U.S. Air Force is responsible for two of the three legs of the triad.
The National Nuclear Security Administration completed the first production unit of the B61-12 Life Extension Program in December 2021, five years after the program kicked off. The airdropped battlefield/tactical nuclear weapon is the B-2 bomber’s primary strategic weapon, but it can also be equipped on forward-deployed F-16s and F-15Es to protect NATO allies. It will one day also be integrated on the F-35A.
The B61 Mod 12 updates a weapons system first delivered in 1966, consolidating modifications -3, -4, -7, and -10 into a single configuration to be used through 2040. Mod-11, the most recently fielded update, was introduced in the late 1990s.
“For all but five years of the United States Air Force’s life as a service, there’s always been a B-52,” said Gen. Anthony J. Cotton, commander of Air Force Global Strike Command, during the AFA conference. “And, guess what? There will be B-52s until 2050, so the modernization efforts that are going into the B-52 is incredibly important for strategic deterrence.”
The B-21, however, will make up the “preponderance of the bomber force moving forward,” he noted. Six of the new bombers are under construction at Northrop Grumman’s Palmdale, Calif., facility, and the first B-21 expected to fly has moved to a new hangar for loads calibration tests—one of the final steps before first flight.
Both the B-52 and B-21 will be equipped with the Long-range Standoff missile (LRSO), which is slated to replace the nuclear AGM-86B Air-Launched Cruise Missile beginning in 2030. First flight of the LRSO is expected sometime this year. The missile will have a range in excess of 1,500 miles.
The Air Force requested $609 million for the LRSO in its 2022 budget request, but cost estimates for the overall program range from $10 billion to $20 billion.
The Minuteman III ICBM—the ground-based leg of the triad—was designed with 1960s to 1970s technology and intended to serve just 10 years. Yet, it recently celebrated its 50th birthday. The Air Force is working to transition to the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) “at the end of this decade,” but the program is continually attacked on Capitol Hill as members of Congress, overwhelmed with the impending cost of the modernization bow wave, look to push off upgrades one more time, or worse, scrap the program all the together in favor of a dyad deterrent.
“What I find interesting in the conversation about GBSD: We’re five years into the program of record on GBSD,” Cotton said. “So, let’s stop talking about it like we’re trying to figure out if we’re going to turn it into a program of record. It IS a program of record. It is the system that we need to replace the Minuteman weapon system. And the team, many are in the audience, are doing an incredible job doing just that.”
Dawkins said Congress generally seems to recognize the threats and has agreed to fund modernization for all three legs of the triad. However, he said there’s still confusion about what GBSD actually is, and that’s on the Air Force to make that messaging clear.
“We’ve got broad bipartisan support on the Hill … for the nuclear modernization programs, both through the Air Force and Navy,” he said. “But it’s going to take that constant communication because more than once I’ve heard with regard to GBSD and Minuteman III, ‘You mean it’s more than just a simple missile swap?’ Yes, it’s more than just a simple missile swap. It’s all the launch facilities and all the [command and control], and all the alert facilities … that’s being modernized. All that goes into GBSD, and it’s important to keep folks tracking on the context surrounding the modernization we’re about to do.”
Speaking at the McAleese FY2023 Defense Programs Conference on March 9, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall echoed Dawkin’s comments, saying the unfolding situation in Ukraine, as well as China’s threatening moves toward Taiwan and its campaign to build up its strategic nuclear forces, have “pretty well put to bed” any “arguments that maybe we should have a smaller nuclear deterrent, maybe without as many legs of the triad.”
Paul Ferraro, president of air power for Raytheon Missiles and Defense, speaking during a panel discussion moderated by Dawkins, said all three elements of the triad offer an equally important, but unique, element to strategic deterrence.
“The sea leg offers survivability. The land leg, for the ICBMs, bring responsive deterrence and deterrence in numbers. And, then the air leg provides a visible and flexible response, and that visible and flexible response can compel behavior internationally,” he said.
The Air Force announced in April 2021 that Raytheon will be the “sole-source contractor” for the highly classified LRSO program’s Technology Maturation and Risk Reduction (TMRR) phase, removing competitor Lockheed Martin. The $900 million TMRR deal is expected to run through 2022.
Ferraro said Raytheon is using model-based engineering and digital engineering to “meet the stringent performance requirements” for the weapon, and it’s designing maintainability into the program early on so it can last for decades to come.
Early in the design phase, Raytheon brought in Airmen from Vandenberg Space Force Base, Calif., Minot Air Force Base, N.D., Tinker Air Force Base, Okla., and Barksdale Air Force Base, La., to work with the design team. That collaboration “really informed the design process and informed some of the design attributes,” Ferraro said. Raytheon then used a 3D printer to make a translucent model of the missile itself, ran the wiring harnesses through the mocked-up version, and asked the Airmen to perform the maintenance procedures that had been drafted so far.
“We really took note of what worked, what didn’t, and where we needed to modify the design, so that it would be maintainable, as intended, throughout the lifetime of the product,” he added. “And, then updated our cost model accordingly to really optimize the life cycle cost of the weapon system. Some pretty, pretty exciting stuff.”
Nuclear Command and Control
Lt. Gen. Thomas A. Bussiere, deputy commander of U.S. Strategic Command, said all that modernization is really “underpinned with our ability to command and control it.”
Sometimes referred to as the “fourth leg of the triad,” the 204 systems that make up today’s nuclear command and control enterprise—of which the Air Force owns 70 percent—were designed decades ago with outdated technology for a completely different threat environment.
Through what is being dubbed “NC3 Next,” the Defense Department is looking to leverage modern-day technology, such as artificial intelligence and machine learning, with the advancements it’s making in joint all-domain command and control.
“We want to leverage what we can from JADC2,” Dawkins said. “Why spend double the money on two different systems?”
Christine Jeseritz, director of nuclear command, control, and communications (NC3) for Lockheed Martin, said investments being made in 5G.mil, agile communications, and zero trust “encompasses both requirements and needs” for NC3 and JADC2, while operating in a benign state.
“But it also has to remain survivable through conflict,” she acknowledged. “And so, traditionally, that survival line between the President and the nuclear forces has been called the thin line. Today, we have the technology to be able to thicken that line.”
Anticipating degraded communication in any future conflict, Jeseritz said Lockheed is working with business partners “to provide persistent communications through contested and denied environments in order to deliver those important messages to shooters.”
The company is also looking at AI and machine learning solutions, “because once everything is connected, you then can have data aggregation, and … you’re able to distill large quantities of data quickly, and really be able to get after increasing that decision-making timeline for the decision- makers and senior leaders.”
Jim Kowalski, vice president and corporate lead executive for the USAF customer relations team at Northrop Grumman, said, “The fundamentals of deterrence have not changed. It’s about adversaries’ perception of our will and our capability.”
The retired three-star general who last served as deputy commander of U.S. Strategic Command, added that recapitalizing all three legs of the triad with new systems designed with modern technology for 21st century threats, “not only puts the marker on the table for pacing the threat with capability, but just as importantly, if not more importantly, it shows that the will of the United States to remain the responsible global leader is still there. You get both of those with recapitalizing the force. This is foundational to everything we do.”