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No Margin for Error: Nuclear Capability Must be Upgraded Now, Defense Official Says

By C. Todd Lopez

WASHINGTON (May 02, 2019) -- The U.S. doesn't have any wiggle room in the effort to upgrade its nuclear capability: modernization must be done now, without interruption, or the U.S. stands to lose its deterrence edge, the undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment told the Senate Armed Services Committee yesterday.

The Russians and the Chinese are doing a fine job of upgrading their own nuclear capability and developing new delivery tools as well, Ellen M. Lord said. The U.S. is doing the same.

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But, she said, "We are living now with Cold War technology. We have put off modernizing the triad for multiple decades. So now we have no margin. We need to move forward. So, any cut in funding would essentially have us unilaterally stand down in terms of our capability to have a credible nuclear deterrent."

The deterrence capability of the U.S. nuclear triad underwrites national security, Lord said, and the weapons that make up that triad are fast approaching an age where their last-century capability set may no longer be enough of a threat to keep adversaries from guessing about what the U.S. is capable of doing.

That nuclear triad includes ground-based missiles -- commonly referred to as intercontinental ballistic missiles; submarine-launched ballistic missiles; and air-launched cruise missiles dropped from bomber aircraft. In all three areas the U.S. modernization effort is underway.

-- Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent --

Lord said it no longer makes financial sense to continue to upgrade or extend the life of existing Minuteman III ICBMs. New systems must be brought online. The U.S. is pursuing the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent for that, she told lawmakers.

"There is no margin to do another service life extension program on Minuteman III, because not only would it be more expensive than developing GBSD, but you would not have the resiliency in the capability because you would not have the modern equipment, you would not have the actual capabilities from a functional range point of view [or] warhead capability," Lord said. "So we need to, by 2028, start replacing [ICBMs]."

The U.S. has about 400 deployed Minuteman III ICBMs and is developing replacements through the GBSD program. The Minuteman III has been in place since 1970 and has been life extended several times. The GBSD is expected around 2028.

-- Sea-Based Deterrence --

For sea-based nuclear deterrence, the U.S. has 14 Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines armed with Trident II submarine-launched ballistic missiles. The subs were originally designed with a 30-year life expectancy, which has been extended now to 42 years -- but further extension is not possible.

The follow-on submarine will be the Columbia-class, which is in development now. It's expected to last until 2084. For now, the life extension of the Trident II will allow it to continue to serve aboard the upgraded Ohio-class vessels and then move on to serve, at least initially, aboard the Columbia-class. Production of the first of those ships will begin in fiscal year 2021.

-- Air Defense --

In the air, the U.S. uses B-52H Stratofortress and B-2A Spirit bombers to deliver nuclear weapons, including the AGM-86B air-launched cruise missiles. The Air Force is now upgrading the B-52, initially introduced in 1962. The B-2A will also get upgrades. Eventually, the Air Force expects to procure 100 B-21 Raider aircraft to replace both legacy bombers. The nuclear capability of the AGM-86B ALCM is also expected to be replaced by the Long Range Standoff weapon by the early 2030s.

-- Plutonium Production --

Lord also told lawmakers the U.S. is also standing up a new facility to develop the "nuclear pit" that is the heart of any nuclear weapon.

The U.S. can already construct this portion of weapons at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, she said. DOD wants to be able to produce as many as 30 plutonium pits a year by 2026, and produce 80 per year by 2030.

"We do not have any margin at this point, because for decades we have delayed," Lord said.

To add resilience to that capability, she said DOD is also looking at opening a second pit-production facility at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, about 25 miles southeast of Augusta, Georgia.

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