DOD Aims to Improve Missile Defense, Modernize Nuclear Weapons as ‘Backstop’ of Deterrence

The Department of Defense unveiled updated defense, nuclear, and missile defense strategies Oct. 27 that outline a fundamental shift in the world’s nuclear weapons threat. DOD states that nuclear weapons underpin U.S. strategic defenses and that America will continue to invest in its nuclear forces.

According to the 2022 National Defense Strategy, Nuclear Posture Review, and Missile Defense Review, China is the biggest long-term threat to U.S. security, or the “pacing threat,” while Russia poses significant challenges in the near term as the “acute threat.”

During the 2020 presidential campaign, President Joe Biden said he would work toward a policy in which the U.S. nuclear arsenal’s “sole purpose” would be to deter or respond to a nuclear attack. However, following concerns from U.S. allies, the new Nuclear Posture Review, or NPR, continues the policy that the U.S. could use nuclear weapons to deter or respond to enemy non-nuclear attacks by conventional, biological, chemical, or even cyber weapons.

“The NPR affirms the following roles for nuclear weapons: deter strategic attacks; assure allies and partners; and achieve U.S. objectives if deterrence fails,” the document states. It does not define a “strategic attack.”

According to DOD’s new strategies, the U.S. must retain a strong nuclear arsenal and improve its missile defenses.

“Our nuclear weapons remain the ultimate backstop for our strategic deterrence,” Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III told reporters.

The documents warn that China’s and Russia’s nuclear forces and missiles present unprecedented dangers.

“By the 2030s the United States will, for the first time in its history, face two major nuclear powers as strategic competitors and potential adversaries,” the NPR states. “This will create new stresses on stability and new challenges for deterrence, assurance, arms control, and risk reduction.”

The Nuclear Posture Review represents a significant departure from Biden’s original “sole purpose” goal.

“As long as nuclear weapons exist, the fundamental role of U.S. nuclear weapons is to deter nuclear attack on the United States, our allies, and partners,” the new U.S. nuclear declaratory policy states. “The U.S. would only consider the use of nuclear weapons in extreme circumstances to defend the vital interests of the United States or its allies and partners.”

The Nuclear Posture Review says the U.S. will modernize its nuclear forces. The DOD will “fully fund” and field the Long-Range Standoff weapon, B-21 Raider nuclear-capable stealth bomber, and Sentinel intercontinental ballistic missile. The stealth F-35A Lightning II will become a “dual-capable” aircraft that can carry nuclear or conventional weapons.

“We concluded that nuclear weapons are required to deter not only nuclear attack, but also a narrow range of other high consequence, strategic-level attacks,” the NPR states. “This is a prudent approach given the current security environment and how it could further evolve.”

The documents answer some lingering questions regarding the DOD’s plans for future weapons systems.

The Long-Range Standoff weapon (LRSO) will be introduced and be able to be deployed from F-35s. The LRSO will replace the AGM-86 air-launched cruise missile.

The LGM-35A Sentinel, formerly known as the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD), will replace the current Minuteman III ICBM “one-for-one” to “maintain 400 ICBMs on alert.”

The B-21 Raider stealth bomber will replace the B-2 Spirit. The Air Force will acquire a minimum of 100 B-21s. It will also upgrade the existing B-52 Stratofortress.

The U.S. will field the updated B61-12 nuclear gravity bomb.

“Although the U.S. nuclear arsenal remains safe, secure, and effective today, most systems are operating beyond their original design life, risking system effectiveness, reliability, and availability,” the Defense Department said in a fact sheet accompanying the release. “Today, much of the U.S. nuclear stockpile has aged without comprehensive refurbishment even as the geopolitical environment has deteriorated.”

Some nuclear programs are due to be canceled. The DOD plans to end the development of the nuclear-armed Sea-Launched Cruise Missile-Nuclear (SLCM-N) program.

The U.S. also plans to retire the B83 nuclear gravity bomb along with the B-2.

Trump administration’s 2018 NPR embraced the SLCM-N and B83 programs, but a senior defense official told reporters Oct. 27 that the SLCM-N was “unnecessary” and the B83 was “obsolete.”

“Our inventory of nuclear weapons is significant,” Austin said when pressed on the moves. “We have a lot of capability in our nuclear inventory.”

One of the first steps the Biden administration took when entering office was extending the New START treaty that limits U.S. and Russian long-range nuclear arms by five years until 2026. The administration has said it wants to reduce nuclear weapons’ role in U.S. defense policy. However, the NPR says “peacetime dialogue” is necessary and that NATO must retain its nuclear capability.

The document says Russia has up to 1,550 “accountable deployed warheads on strategic delivery vehicles,” in line with the New START treaty’s prohibitions, “as well as nuclear forces that are not numerically constrained by any arms control treaty.” The NPR points to Russia’s stockpile of “up to 2,000 non-strategic nuclear warheads” and Moscow’s pursuit of “several novel nuclear-capable systems designed to hold the U.S. homeland or allies and partners at risk, some of which are also not accountable under New START.”

The Biden administration’s decision not to shift to a “sole purpose” doctrine for the U.S. weapons comes in the wake of Russia’s renewed invasion of Ukraine and Moscow’s bellicose attitude toward Europe. The NPR’s language suggests that if Russia’s goal was to weaken NATO with its aggression, Moscow’s aims have backfired.

“Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the occupation of Crimea in 2014, NATO has taken steps to ensure a modern, ready, and credible NATO nuclear deterrent,” the NPR states.

China has also been rapidly building up its nuclear arsenal and increasing its threats toward Taiwan since Biden first suggested the U.S. might change its nuclear policy. The U.S. nuclear policy says China, also known as the PRC, “likely intends to possess at least 1,000 deliverable warheads by the end of the decade.”

The overall trend is clear, according to the review.

“While the end state resulting from the PRC’s specific choices with respect to its nuclear forces strategy is uncertain, the trajectory of these efforts points to a large, diverse nuclear arsenal with a high degree of survivability, reliability, and effectiveness,” the NPR says. “This could provide the PRC with new options before and during a crisis or conflict to leverage nuclear weapons for coercive purposes, including military provocations against U.S. allies and partners in the region.”

North Korea, which possesses nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, is also a danger that the United States would respond forcefully to if necessary.

“Any nuclear attack by North Korea against the United States or its Allies and partners is unacceptable and will result in the end of that regime,” the NPR says. “There is no scenario in which the Kim regime could employ nuclear weapons and survive.”

The new nuclear policy strikes the Trump administration’s view that the role of nuclear weapons was to “hedge against an uncertain future.”

The Biden administration’s NPR says the U.S. will “ensure a safe, secure, and effective deterrent.” While nuclear weapons could be used in a non-nuclear conflict, the document is clear the U.S. does not take the use of nuclear weapons lightly.

The NPR says the U.S. will “adopt a strategy and declaratory policy that maintain a very high bar for nuclear employment while assuring allies and partners and complicating adversary decision calculus.” In addition, the strategy outlines some non-nuclear threats to the U.S. and its allies.

China and Russia are “working to augment their growing nuclear forces with a broader set of kinetic and non-kinetic capabilities, including cyber, space, information, and advanced conventional strike.”

The Defense Department sees nuclear weapons threats from China and Russia as problematic, given their substantial missile capabilities. Since the DOD last issued a Missile Defense Review, also known as the MDR, in 2019, “threats have rapidly expanded in quantity, diversity, and sophistication.”

DOD says ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, hypersonic weapons, and uncrewed aircraft systems represent a significant threat to America’s security interests. China and Russia, and to a smaller extent North Korea, represent a risk to the U.S. homeland.

The Missile Defense Review says any attack on the U.S. territories would not be distinguished from strikes on American states. The U.S. island of Guam is a major military hub in the Western Pacific that may be within range of Chinese missiles.

“Within the context of homeland defense, an attack on Guam or any other U.S. territory by any adversary will be considered a direct attack on the United States, and will be met with an appropriate response,” the document says.

The DOD acknowledges that its current missile defense is not comprehensive enough and that the U.S. must develop improved integrated air and missile defense systems. The threat from cruise missiles is particularly acute, the MDR says.

“Gone is the primary focus on rogue state ballistic missiles that defined the 2010 review and programs and budgets for years following,” Tom Karako of the Center for Strategic and International Studies said in an interview.

The document, however, lacks unclassified details on specific defenses DOD hopes to add.

“Although the public version of the review leaves several things to be desired, it nevertheless advances several critical mission areas,” Karako added, referring to the MDR’s focus on a more comprehensive view of missile defense, the inclusion of UAS threats, the increased focus on the U.S. homeland and Guam, and the push for more distributed operations.

The new policies state that the U.S. cannot rely on defenses alone to protect itself and its allies. Ultimately, America will fall back on its nuclear arsenal if necessary.

“In such a circumstance, the United States would seek to end any conflict at the lowest level of damage possible on the best achievable terms for the United States and its allies and partners,” the 2022 NPR states.