As the House of Representatives debates the National Defense Authorization Act, few issues will be more important to our nation’s security than providing long-overdue, stable funding to modernize our nuclear deterrent.
The end of the Cold War led us to reduce our focus on this deterrent, which includes a “triad” of intercontinental ballistic missiles, ballistic missile submarines and nuclear-capable bombers. Because we delayed modernizing each of these three vital legs of deterrence, they are all coming due at the same time.
The Ground Based Strategic Deterrent, or GBSD, is programmed to replace the existing Minuteman III program, which constitutes the intercontinental ballistic missile, or ICBM, leg of the triad. The ICBM force is a critical component of the triad. Its ability to respond before an in-progress attack arrives on our soil is a powerful deterrent to any adversary’s attempt to conduct a preemptive strike.
With this deterrent in place, it’s unlikely that rogue powers such as North Korea or larger powers such as China and Russia would initiate a surprise attack. Moreover, each leg of the triad, including ICBMs, serves as a valuable hedge against a failure in the other two legs.
America’s national defense should not be a partisan issue. The Obama administration concluded in its 2010 review of our nuclear posture that the triad should be maintained and modernized, and subsequently kicked off modernization efforts.
Similarly, the Trump administration warned in its 2018 Nuclear Posture Review against eliminating any leg of the triad, cautioning that doing so would “greatly ease adversary attack planning and allow an adversary to concentrate resources and attention on defeating the remaining two legs.”
Yet despite bipartisan support for the triad, calls for deep cuts to our nuclear deterrent, and to the ground-based component in particular, persist. Curiously, this is occurring at a time when Russia is working to modernize its nuclear forces and China is moving to develop its own triad.
We should not yield to the temptation to radically change nuclear deterrence theory in order to find savings within a recapitalization program that, according to the Department of Defense, will demand only 3.7 percent of the entire defense budget at its peak levels in 2029.
Moreover, abandoning the ground-based leg of our triad would cede valuable leverage to Russia at just the time when our current arms control treaty is coming into the window for extension or renegotiation. Counting on the goodwill of Russia to match any preemptive reductions would be foolhardy in the extreme. Arms control advocates (and I count myself as one of them) should be in favor of maintaining a strong negotiating position, which commitment to a GBSD program would provide.
We are at a critical time for the GBSD program as the Air Force is preparing to release a request for proposals to develop and build the nation’s next ICBM. In congressional testimony this year, Undersecretary of Defense Ellen Lord correctly stated that “Delay is no longer an option.” We need to empower the Air Force to move ahead with this program, which is affordable, urgently needed and foundational to national security.
As frightening as they are, nuclear weapons have kept open conflict between major powers at bay for more than 70 years. As great power competition with Russia and China returns in new and concerning forms, this relatively small investment in protecting our nation’s most vital interest – namely, its survival – seems like a bargain.
Admiral Winnefeld retired after serving as the ninth vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.