The admiral in charge of the U.S. nuclear arsenal said Tuesday he would “welcome” a review by the incoming Biden administration of the country’s nuclear weapons strategy, but lashed out at critics of the military’s plans for new intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).
“I welcome an examination of the nation’s strategy here,” U.S. Strategic Command chief Adm. Charles Richard told reporters. “I recommend that based on the threat. The threat is moving so fast that even given the time since the last Nuclear Posture Review warrants another look at it to make sure that we still endorse our strategy, and we have sufficient capability to execute that strategy.”
When asked about outside groups recommending Biden cut a program to replace existing ICBMs, Richard pushed back.
“I don't understand, frankly, how someone in a think tank, who actually doesn't have their hands on the missile looking at the parts, the cables, all of the pieces inside -- that thing is so old,” Richard said.
Richard went on to say he has had meetings with the Biden transition team that have “gone very well,” with plans for more, but did not provide details of the conversations.
The Trump administration conducted a Nuclear Posture Review that came out in 2018, as well as separate reviews on issues such as missile defense and space.
The Trump administration’s nuclear review in some ways followed the Obama administration’s 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, such as endorsing the modernization of the triad. But it deviated in other ways, such as calling for new weapons like the low-yield submarine-launched warhead that has since been deployed and raising the possibility of using nuclear weapons to respond to non-nuclear attacks.
The Biden administration is expected to conduct its own Nuclear Posture Review and is reportedly considering cuts to nuclear modernization programs.
One program that could be targeted is the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD), the next-generation intercontinental ballistic missiles set to replace aging Minuteman III missiles. The contract to build the missiles was awarded just last year.
The program has long been a target of arms control advocates and some Democrats who say it would be more cost-effective to extend the life of the Minuteman IIIs. Some want to eliminate the land component of the triad altogether because of what they see as its high risk for accidental nuclear war.
On Tuesday, Richard argued in support of the GBSD, saying the 50-year-old Minuteman III missiles will soon be too old to extend their lives.
“It is getting past the point of 'it's not cost effective to life-extend Minuteman III.' You're quickly getting to the point you can't do it at all,” Richard said. “That thing is so old that in some cases the drawings don't exist anymore, or where we do have drawings, they're like six generations behind the industry standard. And there's not only anybody that's not working that can understand them, they're not alive anymore.”
Richard also said he would recommend any review taken under the Biden administration to be broader than just the nuclear portfolio.
“More broadly, I think a Nuclear Posture Review is too narrowly defined,” Richard said. “We face global threats, and then to parse our examination of those into a Nuclear Posture Review, a Missile Defense Review, a space review, a cyber review kind of misses the totality of what the strategic threat to this nation and our allies are. And I would recommend a broader based strategic review as opposed to parsing it out in pieces.”
Biden will also quickly be faced with a decision on whether to extend a nuclear treaty with Russia known as New START. The treaty expires two weeks after Biden takes office. Biden has said he would extend it, but did not specify for how long.
Richard sidestepped several questions about recommendations to Biden on extending the treaty, saying such decisions are “political” and that he would “simply provide best military advice about the implications whichever way you wish to go on.”