Is America's Nuclear Arsenal Dying?

As Russia and other nations around the world flex their “nuclear muscles,” when it comes to the United States, maintaining a credible nuclear force is certainly a tough task. Challenges include: declining research, development and acquisition budgets; uncertain prospects for modernization, and an American public that lacks a clear understanding how nuclear weapons contribute to national security.  

The U.S. nuclear force has prevented a great power war for seven decades.  Yet the commitment to maintain a credible nuclear force appears shaky.

That is certainly not the case in competitor nations such as Russia, China and North Korea. While sanctions and low oil prices have crippled Russia’s economy, the Kremlin is still doggedly spending billions of dollars on modernizing its strategic rocket forces. Washington’s lack of commitment takes a toll on more than investment. It does not go unnoticed by the men and women who man the nation’s nuclear submarines, bombers, and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). That only makes executing a nuclear mission more difficult, both practically and morally.

State of Affairs

Imagine being out on the vast prairie of Montana, North Dakota, Wyoming, Colorado or Nebraska in the dead of winter, the blasts of wind making the sub-zero temperatures nearly unbearable. After driving one to three hours to reach your missile alert facility, you go down into the launch control center (LCC) where the 50-year-old equipment smells the same as it did to your father, who pulled alerts here before you were born. During winter, heavy snow may trap maintenance and missile alert crews in the missile field for days. When they finally get to go home, the smell of old equipment and chemicals lingers on their clothes.

Much the same can be said for the bomber crews who fly the exact same aircraft their fathers flew and their sons or daughters will likely fly.

Recent Analysis

The Heritage Foundation’s newly released 2015 “Index of U.S. Military Strength” evaluates the health of the U.S. nuclear complex according to nine categories. In four of those categories—“Warhead Modernization,” “Delivery Systems Modernization,” Nuclear Weapons Complex” and “Nuclear Test Readiness”—the complex was rated as “weak” (the second worst rating possible).  

One of the main factors behind these low scores is sequestration. Its “automatic pilot” budget regimen threatens sustained and predictable funding—a major problem for addressing issues within the nuclear complex. Already it has forced a delay in plans to replace aging delivery systems. This includes everything from a new bomber and its nuclear certifications, to a replacement for the Ohio-class strategic submarine, to a follow-on intercontinental ballistic missile.

Another major factor contributing to lower scores are the government’s conflicting policies regarding the nuclear complex. We say we care about the nuclear force and the complex that supports it, yet manpower and resources available to execute the nuclear mission have been steadily declining until recently. We say we are in favor of a robust nuclear modernization program, yet proclaim, at the same time, we need to get to a world without nuclear weapons—all while refusing to truly modernize our weapons.  

The President’s fiscal year 2016 budget dedicates over $75 million for the ground-based strategic deterrent, better known as the Minuteman replacement. While the current missiles are in fact woefully archaic—they were first deployed in the 1970s—there is no provision for replacing the even older silos and launch control centers from which a new missile would be launched.

On the bright side, the President’s budget accelerates by two years the Long-Range Stand Off missile, an essential advancement in American capabilities. This project is particularly vital considering the limited number of available stealth bombers and the angle of attack needed to counter the tunneling efforts of our adversaries, which make targets hard to reach.

The main question, however, is what Congress will do.  At the end of the day, it’s the House and Senate that decide which programs get funded and at what level.

The Index’s low rankings indicate the areas of America’s nuclear force that are in greatest need of investment. And it’s a force that must be sustained. The nuclear mission is critical. Its ultimate purpose is to deter a catastrophic attack on our homeland, our forces abroad, and our allies. While it is true that we require a nuclear force we never hope to launch, it is important to recognize that our nuclear weapons serve to keep the peace every day.

As Russia and other nations around the world flex their “nuclear muscles,” when it comes to the United States, maintaining a credible nuclear force is certainly a tough task. Challenges include: declining research, development and acquisition budgets; uncertain prospects for modernization, and an American public that lacks a clear understanding how nuclear weapons contribute to national security.  

The U.S. nuclear force has prevented a great power war for seven decades.  Yet the commitment to maintain a credible nuclear force appears shaky.

That is certainly not the case in competitor nations such as Russia, China and North Korea. While sanctions and low oil prices have crippled Russia’s economy, the Kremlin is still doggedly spending billions of dollars on modernizing its strategic rocket forces. Washington’s lack of commitment takes a toll on more than investment. It does not go unnoticed by the men and women who man the nation’s nuclear submarines, bombers, and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). That only makes executing a nuclear mission more difficult, both practically and morally.

State of Affairs

Imagine being out on the vast prairie of Montana, North Dakota, Wyoming, Colorado or Nebraska in the dead of winter, the blasts of wind making the sub-zero temperatures nearly unbearable. After driving one to three hours to reach your missile alert facility, you go down into the launch control center (LCC) where the 50-year-old equipment smells the same as it did to your father, who pulled alerts here before you were born. During winter, heavy snow may trap maintenance and missile alert crews in the missile field for days. When they finally get to go home, the smell of old equipment and chemicals lingers on their clothes.

Much the same can be said for the bomber crews who fly the exact same aircraft their fathers flew and their sons or daughters will likely fly.

Recent Analysis

The Heritage Foundation’s newly released 2015 “Index of U.S. Military Strength” evaluates the health of the U.S. nuclear complex according to nine categories. In four of those categories—“Warhead Modernization,” “Delivery Systems Modernization,” Nuclear Weapons Complex” and “Nuclear Test Readiness”—the complex was rated as “weak” (the second worst rating possible).  

One of the main factors behind these low scores is sequestration. Its “automatic pilot” budget regimen threatens sustained and predictable funding—a major problem for addressing issues within the nuclear complex. Already it has forced a delay in plans to replace aging delivery systems. This includes everything from a new bomber and its nuclear certifications, to a replacement for the Ohio-class strategic submarine, to a follow-on intercontinental ballistic missile.

Another major factor contributing to lower scores are the government’s conflicting policies regarding the nuclear complex. We say we care about the nuclear force and the complex that supports it, yet manpower and resources available to execute the nuclear mission have been steadily declining until recently. We say we are in favor of a robust nuclear modernization program, yet proclaim, at the same time, we need to get to a world without nuclear weapons—all while refusing to truly modernize our weapons.  

The President’s fiscal year 2016 budget dedicates over $75 million for the ground-based strategic deterrent, better known as the Minuteman replacement. While the current missiles are in fact woefully archaic—they were first deployed in the 1970s—there is no provision for replacing the even older silos and launch control centers from which a new missile would be launched.

On the bright side, the President’s budget accelerates by two years the Long-Range Stand Off missile, an essential advancement in American capabilities. This project is particularly vital considering the limited number of available stealth bombers and the angle of attack needed to counter the tunneling efforts of our adversaries, which make targets hard to reach.

The main question, however, is what Congress will do.  At the end of the day, it’s the House and Senate that decide which programs get funded and at what level.

The Index’s low rankings indicate the areas of America’s nuclear force that are in greatest need of investment. And it’s a force that must be sustained. The nuclear mission is critical. Its ultimate purpose is to deter a catastrophic attack on our homeland, our forces abroad, and our allies. While it is true that we require a nuclear force we never hope to launch, it is important to recognize that our nuclear weapons serve to keep the peace every day.

Editor's note: This commentary was co-authored by Dr. Adam Lowther 

- Michaela Dodge is a defense and strategic policy analyst in The Heritage Foundation’s Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy.

 - Dr. Adam Lowther is a research professor at the Air Force Research Institute.

About the Author

Michaela Dodge Senior Policy Analyst, Defense and Strategic Policy
Center for National Defense

Originally appeared in Real Clear Defense