Lloyd Austin has to back nuclear modernization for the free world

Lloyd Austin has to back nuclear modernization for the free world
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The Senate has held a recent confirmation hearing for retired General Lloyd AustinLloyd AustinOvernight Defense: House votes to repeal 2002 Iraq war powers | Pentagon leaders press senators to reimburse National Guard | New pressure on US-Iran nuclear talks Top US general: Chinese military has 'ways to go' before it can take Taiwan Pentagon leaders press senators to reimburse National Guard for Capitol deployment MORE, the new secretary of defense, offering a window into the national security posture of the new administration of President Biden. This gave insight into many defense policy issues, but on the priority of nuclear deterrence, his testimony did not give all the answers. Although Austin declared the administration is committed to the nuclear triad, the same was not true for nuclear modernization, a strategic necessity that must no longer be delayed. It deserves support from Austin.

He committed to the triad of bombers, submarines, and intercontinental ballistic missiles. Austin concurred that nuclear deterrence is the highest priority for the Defense Department and said he “personally supports” the triad. Some analysts and former officials have called for a reduction of the nuclear triad to a nuclear dyad of only air and sea. Since intercontinental ballistic missiles are critical to the nuclear strategy of the United States, it is a relief that the administration has ruled out this bad idea.

While his support for the nuclear triad provides welcome certainty, the response from Austin on nuclear modernization raises some key issues about the nuclear posture of the new administration. The boats, planes, missiles, and supporting infrastructure of the nuclear triad are rapidly aging far beyond their intended service lives. The Minuteman missiles recently turned 50, and three generations of pilots have flown the B52 strategic bombers. Noting the aging nuclear triad could not be updated piecemeal, Barack Obama committed to the broad modernization of the nuclear triad, a policy which continued under Donald Trump.


Senators Deb Fischer and Kevin Cramer pointed to bipartisan consensus on nuclear modernization, and they asked Austin for a commitment to the current schedule. Austin declined to do so, citing the need to “get under the hood” and consult with Strategic Command and other officials before he decides on appropriate investments and timelines. This is concerning because, as Cramer mentioned, some have called for the ground based strategic deterrent to be more delayed or even scaled back.

When Austin consults with Strategic Command on nuclear modernization, as he pledged to the Senate in his testimony, he should conclude that the current schedule is the appropriate and fiscally prudent response to this aging nuclear arsenal and a rising nuclear threat. Admiral Charles Richard of Strategic Command is likely to tell Austin what he has stated publicly in that nuclear modernization is essential to national security.

Austin raised the prospect of cutting legacy defense systems to invest in new technologies, from hypersonic missiles to directed energy weapons and artificial intelligence. While forward looking defense investments are critical, nuclear weapons are the wrong place to search for savings. The nuclear arsenal accounts for about 5 percent of the defense budget, so there are not significant savings to be had within those funds. Moreover, as Austin acknowledged, nuclear deterrence is the highest priority of the Defense Department. As his predecessor, James Mattis, once confirmed about nuclear modernization, “America can afford survival.”

The confirmation hearings of other key Defense Department officials will provide some further opportunity for the Senate to press on their views of nuclear deterrence. The Senate must ensure Pentagon officials commit to the modernization of all elements of the nuclear triad. Indeed, Biden came to office promising to rebuild our alliances, and the United States nuclear arsenal provides extended deterrence to dozens of formal treaty allies. To achieve such foreign policy ambitions, Biden should also support the plan to modernize the forces that protect the entire free world.

Matthew Kroenig is deputy director of the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He has worked on nuclear issues for the Defense Department, and he is the author of “The Logic of American Nuclear Strategy.” Mark Massa is assistant director of forward defense at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security with the Atlantic Council.