Nuclear Threat Returns

The nation has not seriously considered the possibility of engaging in competition with a nuclear-capable armed adversary in more than 25 years, warns Navy Adm. Charles “Chas” A. Richard, the commander of the U.S. Strategic Command stated at a recent conference.

According to a Congressional Research study,  the United States has reduced the number of warheads deployed on its long-range missiles and bombers, consistent with the terms of the 2010 New START Treat.

In 1990, as the Cold War was drawing to a close and the Soviet Union entered its final year, the United States had more than 12,000 nuclear warheads deployed on 1,875 strategic nuclear delivery vehicles. As of July 1, 2009, according to the counting rules in the original Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), the United States had reduced to 5,916 nuclear warheads on 1,188 strategic nuclear delivery vehicles. Under the terms of the 2002 Strategic Offensive Reduction Treaty (known as the Moscow Treaty) between the United States and Russia, this number was to decline to no more than 2,200 operationally deployed strategic nuclear warheads by the end of 2012.

Moscow has a history of cheating on nuclear arms deals, so it is appropriate to ask whether they have carried out their end of the bargain. China, which has become the predominant military threat, is not a signatory to nuclear arms deals, and remains free to build up their arsenal beyond any limits.

At the present time, the U.S. land-based ballistic missile force (ICBMs) consists of 400 land-based Minuteman III ICBMs, each deployed with one warhead, spread among a total of 450 operational launchers. This force is consistent with the New START Treaty. The Air Force has modernized the Minuteman missiles, replacing and upgrading their rocket motors, guidance systems, and other components, so that they can remain in the force through 2030. It has initiated a program to replace these with a new Ground-based Strategic Deterrent beginning around 2029.

The U.S. ballistic missile submarine fleet currently consists of 14 Trident submarines. Each can carry 20 Trident II (D-5) missiles—a reduction from 24 missiles per submarine—with the total meeting the launcher limits in the New START Treaty. The Navy converted 4 of the original 18 Trident submarines to carry nonnuclear cruise missiles. Nine of the submarines are deployed in the Pacific Ocean and five are in the Atlantic. The Navy also has undertaken efforts to extend the life of the missiles and warheads so that they and the submarines can remain in the fleet past 2020. It has designed and is beginning production of the new Columbia class submarine that will replace the existing fleet beginning in 2031.

The U.S. fleet of heavy bombers includes 20 B-2 bombers and 40 nuclear-capable B-52 bombers. The B-1 bomber is no longer equipped for nuclear missions. This fleet of 60 nuclear-capable aircraft is consistent with the U.S. obligations under New START. The Air Force has begun to retire the nuclear-armed cruise missiles carried by B-52 bombers, leaving only about half the B52 fleet equipped to carry nuclear weapons.

Adm. Richard notes that “Given Russia and China’s expanding capabilities and increasingly aggressive behavior, and those posed by nuclear North Korea and possibly Iran, we must reinvigorate the national conversation on the importance of strategic deterrence.”

Richard said he simply doesn’t have the luxury of assuming a nuclear conflict or war won’t happen. He noted that the DOD must prioritize the modernization of U.S. nuclear weapons.

“We can no longer expect our potential adversaries to act within our long-standing, self-imposed constraints based on our rule sets or values, particularly between conventional and nuclear,” he said.

Frank Vernuccio serves as editor-in-chief of the New York Analysis of Policy and Government.

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