Excessive nuclear force modernization should be the next COVID-19 victim

Excessive nuclear force modernization should be the next COVID-19 victim
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On March 26, a defense news outlet reported that leaders in charge of Army, Air Force and Navy budgets asked Deputy Defense Secretary David Norquist to delay a June 1 deadline to submit early budget plans for fiscal year 2022. Service leaders sought to reduce bureaucratic requirements causing large numbers of Pentagon employees to continue working, which can distract service leaders from focusing on fighting the coronavirus.  

I assure you, deferring grinding bureaucratic budget work will be the least of the service chiefs’ worries, given the fiscal destruction caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and trying to keep the U.S. economy from plunging into a depression. Whether President TrumpDonald TrumpSix big off-year elections you might be missing Twitter suspends GOP Rep. Banks for misgendering trans health official Meghan McCain to Trump: 'Thanks for the publicity' MORE is reelected or not, the Department of Defense (DOD) has seen the high water mark for budgets for at least the rest of this decade. Given the worrisome budget deficits we already were running, and the massive increases in deficit financing required to prop up the economy and fight the virus, defense budgets are headed for a period of sustained austerity.  

In February, DOD leaders said they need 3 percent to 5 percent real growth per year to sustain the administration’s buildup. They will be lucky to get flat-lined budgets. The service chiefs should start now to reconfirm their core priorities so DOD funds only absolutely necessary war-fighting capabilities and readiness, and eliminates unnecessary spending.


A key decision that the Defense Department and the chiefs will have to make is to ensure we don’t overspend on nuclear weapons. A good start would be to cancel the massive buildup in nuclear weapons the administration needlessly embarked on in the 2021 DOD budget.  According to the Congressional Budget Office’s 2019 estimate, the Trump administration’s current plan to expand and modernize our nuclear force holdings is expected to cost almost $500 billion over 10 years. In 2018, the bill for nuclear force modernization was estimated at $350 billion; it was later bumped to $400 billion. And you can bet $500 billion will end up being on the low side by the time this unnecessary expansion of our nuclear holdings is completed.

Our nuclear forces need to be modernized but we don’t need as many of them as we have. The current plan to modernize all three legs of the Strategic Triad — intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) and long-range bombers — at the same numbers we currently deploy is wasteful. We should immediately reduce our deployed warheads from the 1,550 allowed under current treaty limits to 1,000 spread across the three legs of the Triad, a level the Joint Chiefs of Staff previously certified is sufficient to meet our deterrence strategy.  

We should phase the modernization, rather than do all three legs at once. Start with the submarines because they are the most reliable and survivable, but reduce the fleet by at least one and maybe two boats. Modernize the ICBMs next, but cut the number of deployed missiles from 400 to around 250. Reducing the ICBM and submarine legs of the Triad, and decreasing the number of deployed strategic warheads from 1,550 to 1,000, would save a couple hundred billion dollars. 

Finally, modernize the bomber force last because the current delivery airframes can remain in service many years longer with longer-range, air-launched cruise missiles already being developed.  

Another $17 billion can be saved by eliminating the administration’s plan to deploy new “tactical/lower yield” nuclear weapons. The U.S. doesn’t need to deploy more so-called tactical nuclear weapons, which are inherently destabilizing because to use them invites retaliation at the strategic level. Dubious theories about controlling escalation through nuclear signaling fail the practical realism test. Once the nuclear threshold is breached, it’s “Katie, bar the door.”  

China has maintained a “no first use nuclear policy” since acquiring nuclear weapons, and the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency recently stated that the number of warheads the Chinese have is estimated to be in the “low couple of hundreds.” Ask yourself why, when confronted by massive Russian and U.S. arsenals, China maintains such smaller nuclear holdings. It’s because the Chinese realize that nuclear weapons have only one role: deterring their use by potential adversaries.  

Studies done at U.S. war colleges have concluded the U.S. could support its deterrence strategy at a level of only 300 to 500 deployed nuclear weapons. Classical nuclear theory instructs that deterrence works if we retain a reliable and demonstrated capability to destroy anything the opponent values, coupled with an opponent’s inability to calculate how, once nuclear weapons are used, his own total destruction can be avoided. As Stanley Kubrick’s "Doctor Strangelove" said, it’s fear that makes deterrence work.

John Fairlamb, Ph.D., is a retired U.S. Army colonel with a military career spanning 45 years, mostly in Joint Service assignments where he taught nuclear strategy and helped to formulate arms control agreements.