Military Officials Defend Triad, Warn Lawmakers That Nuclear Modernization Can No Longer Be Delayed

The Air Force and U.S. Strategic Command know there’s going to be critical looks at the service’s plans for nuclear modernization, they just want to lay some things out first.

“I’m a big fan of a debate,” said Lt. Gen. James C. Dawkins Jr., the deputy chief of staff for strategic deterrence and nuclear integration, during an AFA Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies virtual event on April 22. “I think we need to have a national debate. It’s something that we have not had, necessarily, in the past. And these weapons are so important to our defense of our nation that it’s good to have this debate. But I’ll caveat that with it needs to be an informed debate.”

As the new Congress begins deliberations on the budget and the Biden administration plans a new Nuclear Posture Review, STRATCOM and USAF are publicly laying the groundwork for this discussion, saying:

“The challenge is because our nation has deferred modernization several times over the past 20-30 years, delivering these programs on time is critical to our strategic deterrent,” Dawkins said. “I want to reinforce: all the Air Force programs are on track.”

The Requirement for GBSD

The biggest target for cuts in nuclear modernization has been the ICBM leg of the triad, and the Air Force’s Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent program, which will replace the Minuteman III and upgrade silos and alert stations.

STRATCOM boss Adm. Charles A. Richard, in two Capitol Hill hearings and a press briefing, repeatedly said though USAF maintainers have been essentially practicing magic to keep the Cold War-era missiles and ground systems viable, the margin has depleted. The Air Force has told STRATCOM it can keep the Minuteman III viable to the initial operational capability date of GBSD, which is set now for 2029.

“I am fully confident that they are able to go do that,” Richard said during an April 22 press conference. “What I’m trying to point out is, that if you want to push that further, you are going into uncharted territory. We may be able to chart that territory, but there is an enormous amount of detail that has to go into that, and the only organization that I know who is capable of working through all of that detail is the United States Air Force. … It’s not simply a matter of saying, ‘Well, the rocket will work and a couple of other things.’ It’s a weapon system” that has many components that are aging out and unable to be replaced.

As an example, Richard noted there are switches in use in the alert stations that cannot be replaced. To cut GBSD and instead life-extend Minuteman III, components like that will have to be re-engineered with vendors starting new production to make old parts.

“I want us to recognize that you can’t indefinitely life-extend anything,” Richard said. “You can’t take stuff that you got back at the end of the Cold War and to think somehow, forever, you can continue to make it work, right? There’s a point where it becomes not cost effective to do that. And there’s another point out there where it’s not possible at all. And I want to make sure that as we think through these decisions, we recognize that those points exist and look for them.”

The Pentagon has repeatedly looked at the feasibility and affordability of extending the life of the Minuteman III instead of the GBSD, notable in 2014 with a full analysis of alternatives. That effort, along with reviews at every milestone of the GBSD program, has shown it is “more expensive to life-extend Minuteman III than it is to continue on with GBSD,” Dawkins said.

While extending the old system would require new vendors and suppliers for the old parts, GBSD is using new design efforts such as digital engineering to produce a system that is entirely modernized.

“Why would we want to spend more money to life-extend Minuteman III and not have increased safety, not have increased security, not have increased effectiveness or increased reliability that we’re getting with GBSD?” Dawkins said.  

Some on Capitol Hill have criticized the funding for replacing Minuteman III, arguing the money is better suited for other DOD programs or priorities outside of the military, and that keeping the current system viable is better than a complete overhaul.

But Dawkins argued that the system has not “really been modernized” since 1980, so it needs to be maintained now while going forward with modernization efforts.

NC3 and B-21

While there is partisan disagreement on modernizing ICBMs, Dawkins said, “If there’s one bipartisan issue that everybody can jump on and support it’s (nuclear command and control). Whether you have 10 or 1,550 nuclear weapons as dictated by New START, without a reliable and secure NC3 system, you really don’t have a deterrent.”

“The NC3 enterprise is very complex, and it’s going to take some time to continue ensuring that it is always there for our worst day so that no matter what, the President can get his direction down to the force,” Dawkins said.

The Air Force’s new B-21 Raider nuclear bomber, set to replace the B-1 and B-2, is a bright spot in military acquisition because it is “on track, it’s doing well,” Dawkins said. When it comes online, the B-21 will have increased capabilities over the current stealth B-2 while also in greater numbers. The service’s current bomber fleet is 141 airplanes total, including B-1s, B-2s, and B-52s. The service eventually plans a force of 75 B-52s and “no less than” 100 B-21s, but the Air Force wants that number to go up.

“We’re really hoping for about 145-ish B-21s because we think that the bombers are just such a valuable part of our nation’s defense, not only from a nuclear standpoint but just as important from the conventional standpoint,” Dawkins said. Through efforts such as bomber task force deployments, “We look bigger than we actually are because we’ve got bombers that are able to range across the world unimpeded by places to land. Basically, they can take off from the United States, they can fly (refueled by) tankers, and they can strike any target on the globe and come back to the United States. So they don’t need basing rights, like so many of our other platforms. And so if you really want the definition of long-range fires, or what we call long-range strike, the bomber already proves that capability.”