Behind China and Russia – A long way for the U.S. in the modernization of nuclear weapons

An unarmed Trident II D5 missile launches from the Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine USS Nebraska (SSBN-739) off the coast of California in 2008 – Photo: US Navy

China and Russia had their money on winning asymmetric advantages in conventional and nuclear forces in the last decade, and now the United States is playing catch-up in modernizing its sea, air and land nuclear forces, the Pentagon’s top policy official said Wednesday.

David Trachtenberg, the Pentagon’s deputy undersecretary for policy, said the United States put off modernizing the three legs of its nuclear deterrent for almost 20 years, he told USNI News following a presentation at the Brookings Institution.

“In the 2000s, we skipped a generation” in modernizing the triad – ballistic missile submarines, bombers, and ballistic missiles. He added that the United Kingdom and France, both nuclear powers and NATO allies, reduced their weapons stockpiles while continuing to modernize their nuclear forces during that same time. The United Kingdom has sea-based ballistic missile submarines; France has both submarines and aircraft capable of delivery of nuclear weapons.

At the same time, North Korea, India and Pakistan established themselves as nuclear powers.

“Most of the nation’s nuclear deterrence was built in the 1980s or even earlier,” Trachtenberg said during the presentation. The triad was “aging into obsolescence.”

Trachtenberg said in answer to a question during the forum that the United States is not engaged in a new arms race with Moscow or starting one with China, but “Russia is re-scoping” its nuclear and conventional forces, including using low-yield nuclear weapons to get its way in a confrontation.

During the presentation and follow-up conversation with USNI News, he emphasized that the Pentagon’s move to modifying existing sea-launched cruise and ballistic missiles are designed to “close a gap” that Moscow is exploiting with its positioning of ground-based intermediate range cruise missiles on its borders. The United States has said their deployment violated the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) agreement between the two.

China was not a party to that treaty and has missiles of that range in its arsenal. The United States has announced is pulling out of the agreement. Whether that move will lead to the United States leaving other arms agreements is unclear.

In answer to an audience question, he said the administration has not yet decided on continuing in the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty.

“We’re not attempting to match Russia system for system,” but “to close a gap” that the Kremlin believes gives it a “coercive advantage” in a European crisis. He said the American sea-launched systems “provide a mix and range of capabilities” needed in a changing security environment, do not violate any arms agreement and do not require congressional approval.

Trachtenberg said during the session that Russia’s military doctrine accepts the use of “so-called tactical nuclear weapons and [nuclear-armed] cruise missiles” in resolving a confrontation. As for the United States’ position on “first use” of nuclear weapons, he added it is one of “constructive ambiguity,” the same as the United Kingdom’s announced policy.

He specifically cited “the novel nuclear systems that President [Vladimir] Putin unveiled with great fanfare a couple of months ago” as yet another development designed to throw into question the United States’ commitment to “extended deterrence” to its allies in Europe and the Indo-Pacific.

“Extended deterrence does not exist in a vacuum.” That includes allies and partners wanting it, believing that it is there for their protection and would be employed if necessary, and a willingness to do their part, he said.

In addition to the nuclear arsenals of the United Kingdom and France to help deter Russian aggression, he cited the deployment of the F-35A Lightning II showing allied commitment to extended deterrence. For some nations, it will be replacing the dual-weapon capable F-15E.

For allies like Japan and Korea, the deterrence centers on their continued belief that the U.S.’s “nuclear umbrella” protects them as well as the American homeland and the placement of sophisticated air and missile defense systems like Patriot and Theater High-Altitude Area Defense on the peninsula and Aegis Ashore on the home islands.

He added Asian allies “may hold a different view than our European allies” on the exact meaning of extended deterrence; and even among European allies, views may differ from one nation to another.

Trachtenberg linked the Nuclear Posture Review and the Missile Defense Review as showing the administration’s commitment to extended deterrence and how the United States values allies and partners. The administration also has remained committed to spending 3.5 percent of the Pentagon’s overall budget [or $25 billion annually] on its nuclear weapons programs, a percentage that would grow about 7 percent as costs of Columbia-class ballistic missile submarines and new bombers come more into play.

A modernized nuclear triad “is the ultimate guarantor of our security.” Extended deterrence is “more challenging” now – especially with North Korea possessing nuclear weapons and long-range missiles.

This article first appeared on USNI-News

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