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Nuclear Deterrent Is The Joint Force Modernization Priority
by Cheryl Pellerin, DOD News
April 16, 2017

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The joint force puts the U.S. nuclear deterrent at the top of its list for modernization and recapitalization and these no longer can be deferred, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told House Armed Services Committee members on March 8, 2017.

The Cold War Nuclear Triad has evolved to a more “capabilities-based” posture to deal with multiple aggressors across a spectrum of contingencies. (Image courtesy of U.S. Department of Defense)
The Cold War Nuclear Triad has evolved to a more “capabilities-based” posture to deal with multiple aggressors across a spectrum of contingencies. (Image courtesy of U.S. Department of Defense)

Air Force Gen. Paul J. Selva and Air Force Gen. John Hyten, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, testified before the House panel on the military assessment of nuclear deterrence requirements. Joining them for the hearing were Navy Adm. Bill Moran, vice chief of Naval Operations, and Air Force Gen. Stephen Wilson, vice chief of staff of the Air Force.

Selva said that over the past decade considered decisions have been made to defer some nuclear force modernization to address urgent needs while maintaining a safe, reliable and secure arsenal and delivery capability.

“But in making those decisions we have squeezed about all the life we can out of the systems we currently possess,” the general added, “so that places an extra premium on a very deliberate long-term investment strategy to replace those systems as existing systems age out of the inventory.”

Nearing a Crossroads

The nation’s nuclear deterrent is nearing a crossroads, Selva told the panel.

“We are now at a point where we must concurrently recapitalize each component of our nuclear deterrent,” he said, “the nuclear weapons themselves, the triad of strategic delivery platforms, the indication-and-warning systems to support our decision processes, the command-and-control networks that connect the president to our field forces, and our dual-capable tactical aircraft that can be equipped with nonstrategic nuclear weapons.”

Nuclear modernization no longer can be deferred, the general said, adding, “Any disruption of the current program of record for future acquisition plans will introduce significant risk to our deterrent.”

In his comments, Hyten said that at a time when other nations continue to modernize and upgrade their nuclear forces, nearly all elements of the U.S. nuclear weapon stockpile, delivery systems and other critical infrastructure are operating well beyond their designed service life.

“Maintaining strategic deterrence, assurance and escalation control capabilities requires a multifaceted long-term investment approach and a sustained commitment to maintaining a credible nuclear deterrent,” the general said, “[and] that nuclear deterrent is only as effective as the command and control that enables it to function.”

Unpredictable challenges posed by today's multi-domain, multi-threat security environment make it increasingly important to optimize the legacy nuclear command, control and communication, or NC3, systems and leverage new technologies and capabilities, Hyten said.

NC3 systems are essential for providing early warning and time-critical information to the National Command Authority for decision making, and effectively directing triad forces in response to a strategic crisis, Hyten explained in written testimony, and “any delay, deferment or cancellation of NC3 modernization will create a capability gap that potentially degrades the president’s ability to respond appropriately to a strategic threat.”

Retaining the Triad

In advance of consultations last year with members of the Obama administration on potential options for how to manage the nuclear triad, Selva said the Joint Chiefs met and affirmed the need to maintain a triad.

This was largely to manage strategic risks from Russia and China as potential nuclear adversaries, an increasingly aggressive North Korea and its pursuit of nuclear weapons and a potential future entry of Iran into the nuclear arena, he added.

“Based on the collection of potential threats and adversaries that exist in the world,” Selva said, “the Joint Chiefs affirmed the necessity to maintain a triad and to modernize the weapon systems, the indications of warning and the command and control associated with that triad.”

Hyten also believes the triad is fundamental to deterrence and should be retained and modernized. “To deter,” he added, “you have to have a capability that provides the adversary a calculus that he looks at and decides that his options will fail. If the adversary has capabilities to operate from the sea, from the land [and] from the air, we have to be able to turn all those elements. That's how the triad was developed and that's how we need to go.”

Qualitative Advantage

In Selva’s remarks he said the path chosen to modernize and replace the existing nuclear arsenal, “particularly the delivery systems, the indications and warning, and command-and-control,” potentially puts the United States in a position to retain its qualitative advantage and capitalize on the advantage over time.

The advantage comes with “continuing to have a triad that gives us a ballistic missile force that confounds Russian and Chinese targeting, a bomber force that is resilient enough and capable enough to penetrate enemy air defenses and respond to a nuclear attack, and a survivable portion of that triad, in the case of our strategic ballistic missile submarines, that gives us an ability to respond even if an adversary were to believe that they could execute a decapitating attack on our nuclear capability,” Selva said.

For those reasons, the general added, “it is our strategy going forward to continue to modernize all three legs of the triad in order to continue to pose unsurvivable targeting challenges to adversaries that match us in number and [are] very close to matching us [in the quality of] delivery systems themselves.”

By Cheryl Pellerin
DOD News
Copyright 2017

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