Congress must now address this international coronavirus threat

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With the new relief bill passed by Congress, the coronavirus has inspired four different packages of emergency legislation in less than two months. The first one focused on prevention, preparation, and response. It was a costly recognition that the United States was caught unprepared against the known danger of the pandemic. Meanwhile, work on other legislation has been pushed back, and funding of vital priorities has been delayed.

House Armed Service Committee Chairman Adam Smith has warned that the National Defense Authorization Act may not be completed before the new fiscal year. Even more worrying is that funding for the recapitalization of nuclear facilities in the United States, the bedrocks of national defense, may be postponed again. Could this omission become as consequential in the future as the failure in the past to properly invest against pandemics?

Admiral Charles Richard, head of nuclear forces at United States Strategic Command, warned Congress earlier this year and explained, “The atrophy in our nuclear weapons supporting infrastructure is consuming our hedge for avoidable programmatic risk.” He then continued, “We no longer have hedge capacity to fully account for geopolitical risk, technological risk, or operational risk.” Since he made these remarks, the coronavirus has likely escalated geopolitical risk well beyond the “hedge capacity” cited here.

There are disturbing trends across all four of the adversaries with nuclear programs that most concern the United States. These countries are North Korea, China, Russia, and Iran. To start, bilateral relations with China have nosedived following misinformation pushed out of Beijing and the lack of transparency around the outbreak in Wuhan, while the country remains on track to double its nuclear program over this current decade. Meanwhile, North Korea restarted its missile test program, with eight launches alone last month, as well as much harsher rhetoric against the United States.

Russia has used the coronavirus crisis to attempt to stoke dissent within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and tried to blame the pandemic on the United States and allies. Moscow has ordered new weapons and delivery systems, including nuclear cruise missiles and hypersonic drive vehicles. Meanwhile, Iran has been reeling from the double whammy of the pandemic and the major collapse in global oil prices. In the absence of a credible strategy in Washington to restart negotiations with Tehran, the scope for a strategic miscalculation with the country is increasing.

The bottom line is that these countries identified as primary threats in the national defense strategy are investing in nuclear capabilities, just as the coronavirus brings more risks and uncertainty. So for the United States to presume it is safe against these threats is as dangerous today as it was to not plan for pandemics. Modernization of the nuclear missile triad, both in terms of delivery systems and warheads, has become essential in this era of uncertainty. As Admiral Richard said, “The triad is reaching the end of its useful life. So either we replace what we have now, or start to divest, almost on a path to disarmament, in the face of this growing threat.”

The annual White House budget request called for initiation of a warhead program to deliver military capability requirements. This will run in parallel with the replacement warhead program of the United Kingdom, ensuring both countries can continue to make their nuclear deterrent available to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Some other funding is needed for updating federal buildings and infrastructure, 30 percent of which date back to the Manhattan Project in the 1940s. Most of the National Nuclear Security Administration facilities are from the 1970s or earlier in history.

Just as the national strategic stockpile of medical supplies was exposed as unfit to fight the coronavirus, parts of the critical nuclear infrastructure of the United States are now literally crumbling away. Therefore, any further pause in funding risks degrading the key ability to deter strategic threats. Adversaries may choose to exploit the advantages this creates, resulting in an escalation of tensions, miscalculations, and miscommunications.

While no one expects an imminent nuclear attack, no one had expected the country to suffer tens of thousands of deaths from a pandemic. The nature of these threats, both nuclear and health, is that they rarely come exactly as people imagine them, and never at a time of our choosing. We learned from the coronavirus that we need to be prepared with sufficient slack in the system to orientate against the threat that actually emerges. As Admiral Richard said, for nuclear weapons, that slack is all but gone.

Iain King is a visiting fellow with the Center for Strategic and International Studies and was defense counselor in the British Embassy in Washington.

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