Will the US have a nuclear deterrent capable of defending America in 20 years? True, we may not purposely give it up as reaching global zero is certainly not yet on the horizon. But what if we fail to make the needed investments to sustain and modernize what is at heart central to America's security? That is the very question now facing Congress. What kind of nuclear deterrent will we have as we seek a safer world?

Every day, the US spends some $4.7 billion which it does not have in revenue. Every 30 days, we spend what would be required to modernize out nuclear deterrent for 30 years. To claim, as some have, that eliminating such expenditures will significantly bring our national books into balance is preposterous. Every 30 days, we are increasing our debt the equivalent of what it would cost to modernize our entire strategic nuclear deterrent for the next three or four decades. Whatever the cost of deploying a sea- and land-based strategic nuclear triad, it is worth the cost whether examined as total system costs or on a per warhead basis. Moreover, if it is allowed to expire and later found to be needed again, the cost of rebuilding it will not only be higher, but the means of making it will have been dismantled.

In a report to Congress as part of the Nuclear Posture Review, the administration called for over $100 billion in sustainment and investment for our strategic nuclear forces over the next ten years. This 1251 report, named after the section of the defense bill which requires it, appears on the surface to support a continued and effective nuclear deterrent force well into the future.

Unfortunately, while the details of the report remain classified, dangers are apparent. First, apparently no funding for modernizing two-thirds of our nuclear Triad has been agreed upon — no new strategic bombers, no new land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Second, while the proposed investments for our Triad appear substantial, the cost to simply maintain our nuclear deterrent force even without any modernization or improvement is close to $60 billion a decade. This does not ensure that the Triad force survives beyond its service life.

Third, to replace the current submarine force, which ages-out starting in the middle of the next decade, requires an investment of at least $84 billion for 12 submarines. The missiles, including test assets for the new submarine, would cost extra: probably upwards of $25 billion. In the interim, some funding is also required for extending the life of the current sea-launched ballistic missiles. The proposed modernization plan over the next decade is in the neighborhood of $70 billion for just the submarine leg of the triad.

Fourth, to replace the entire 400-450 Minuteman missile force requires a new investment of only $7-10 billion. Replacing all 60 B52 and B2 nuclear mission bombers might require a new investment of only $4 billion in the first decade, and then $15-18 billion over the next. Taken together, to modernize two-thirds of our Triad would cost roughly a quarter of the cost of the modernization of the remaining one-third, yet the modernization plan of the former does not appear in the #1251 report to Congress, or at this time in any publicly available plan submitted to Congress.

Implicit in the new report, therefore, is that without a future plan for the modernization of our Triad that is agreed upon, the US might cut our nuclear deterrent force eventually to just two submarine bases: Kings Bay, Georgia; and Bangor, Washington -- with four submarines at sea at any one time. Six targets. That's it.

Over time our submarines at sea could be attrited by an adversary. At some point, the vulnerability of our remaining two submarine bases could be an open invitation to a pre-emptive attack in a crisis --especially if such an attack could be sufficiently hidden to prevent accurate attribution. Putting all our nuclear deterrent eggs in one basket is thus fraught with peril.

Ironically, we went through this very fight before, some sixteen years ago: the enthusiasm for a very small US nuclear deterrent, even one very vulnerable to attack is not a new phenomenon.

On April 20, 1994, at a breakfast at a Pentagon City Hotel, the very first Nuclear Posture Review [NPR] was being put together.

An old USAF colonel showed me a chart of one possible planned US nuclear deterrent force. "Some senior folks in the Pentagon," he said, "want to eliminate all our ICBMs and our nuclear bombers." If true, the US nuclear deterrent would consist of only our submarines at sea and at their bases in Georgia and Washington. Two soft targets on land, and roughly four to six submarines at sea, at most. We would be painting a bull's-eye on our nuclear forces.

Within a half hour I was in front of the offices of the Senate Armed Services Committee. The door opened. Without saying anything I put the one-page option chart from the colonel in front of the subcommittee staffer.. "This is what is being considered," I said.

The staffer looked at the paper. "You're kidding," he said, and picked up the phone. That morning, the head of our strategic nuclear forces, Stratcom's Admiral Henry Chiles, and General Charles Horner, Commander of US Space Command, were scheduled to testify. The staffer quickly dictated an opening statement for his boss and suggested a few questions to ask. "Maybe we can head 'em off at the pass," he said.

At the hearing were: Admiral Chiles and General Horner. Senators Thurmond, Lott, Exon, Levin, Thurmond, Lott, Bryan Faircloth, Warner, Smith and Kemp, were present. The full committee ranking member was Strom Thurmond. The Strategic Forces subcommittee ranking member was Trent Lott. There were few other people in the room.

Senator Thurmond's statement took the Committee by surprise. In part, he said: "For fifty years we have had a bi-partisan national security policy in areas where the survival of the United States was at issue. Ten administrations agreed that we would deter the nuclear threat with…a policy of deterrence with a surely survivable triad of nuclear forces, that no potential enemy could have any hope of survival if they unleashed an attack on us. I am afraid," he continued,"we may be seeing that unanimity of policy…begin to slip away. I hope I am wrong because the world is more dangerous, not less; there are more nuclear foes, not less…Reports are coming to me of the outcomes being considered in the nuclear posture review. The working group looking at future force structure [reviewed] 21 options. They recommended a force structure like what we have now, a strong Triad. But the chairman of the group…is reportedly going to recommend to the Secretary that we abandon ICBMs. He is going to recommend that we give up the Triad."

Thurmond further explained that while the Cold War was over and we no longer faced the threat "of the Soviet Empire, [we] do not know the permanent shape of the future…Threats to our vital interests are not going to disappear. We may even see new threats to the US homeland. In a still dangerous world, it is a serious error to let our fundamental security policy erode, or allow the irrevocable loss of vital capabilities."

He warned: "At a time when weapons of mass destruction are proliferating and falling into the hands of outlaw states, the United States appears to be going out of the nuclear business by default, if not design."

Senator Thurmond asked whether Admiral Chiles would support the elimination of the ICBM force. The Admiral replied that he fully supported "Minuteman as the ICBM force of the future" and noted that "the Triad concept remains appropriate. The complimentary strengths of each leg combine to provide the necessary operational flexibility to effectively fulfill our charter in the face of an uncertain future."

A few months later, on September 24, when the briefing charts on the Nuclear Posture Review were being loaded in the van to go to Capitol Hill, there were no charts with "0" ICBMs. The US strategic nuclear Triad of submarines, bombers and land-based missiles had been preserved. But it was a close call.

Just a few weeks earlier, Admiral Chiles had sent a sharply worded letter to the Secretary of Defense opposing ANY cuts in the land based Minuteman missiles. The Commander of our Strategic Forces was sufficiently concerned with the proposals under consideration. He warned that such reductions "could undercut both the stability of strategic relationships and the efficacy of future arms control efforts."

He further called for the US to maintain a posture of 500 Minuteman "capable of sustaining an effective deterrent in an uncertain future…Stability is important." He then, in highly unusual detail, laid out his support for what eventually became US policy for at least the next two decades: "Force Option 3 preserves the balance and synergy of the Triad, which remains the most flexible and cost-effective means of providing current and future deterrent capability. The differing degrees of survivability, response time, and weapons payload for each platform lessen risk, complicate enemy planning, hedge against technological breakthrough, provide greater reconstitution capability, and facilitate efficient planning and execution. In a 'no-test' environment, the possibility of a catastrophic failure of a strategic weapon-system increases the importance of maintaining a robust Triad.

"We should retain 500 Minuteman III missiles...[R]eductions below 500 may not produce any significant savings in the near-term due to deactivation costs. This force affords an important capability against hardened and time-urgent targets. The dispersion and number of single-warhead ICBMs also provide stability in a crisis situation by presenting greater numbers of strategic targets and thus diminishing the advantage an attacker would accrue by a preemptive strike."

"To reduce to [even] 350 or fewer missiles would shift the burden to the bomber force to make up target coverage… forcing the bulk of the bombers to be loaded in a way that would seriously degrade their capability. If we dismantle strategic forces prematurely, it would take a long time at great expense to recover these national assets should they be needed again. The stability of our strategic relationships requires we proceed cautiously."

So concerned was Congress that, just to be sure, in 1995, Senator Kemphorne secured approval of an amendment to the defense bill. No unilateral US reductions in the Minuteman fleet were to be allowed. In addition, Senator Baucus of Montana secured a letter from the then President William Clinton, pledging his full support for the continued deployment and sustainment of 500 Minuteman missiles. It is the only such letter ever signed by an American President in the 55 years of the nuclear age on any part of the US nuclear deterrent.

Fast forward to 2010. Over the past fifteen years, all 500 Minuteman missiles have been given new motors and guidance sets in a service life extension program [SLEP]. Bombers, too, have been modernized.

We have now completed two additional Nuclear Posture Reviews, one in 2002 and another in 2010. Congressional law requires the Minuteman to last through 2030. An Air Force round-map for the future of the Minuteman is nearing completion, and a special task force on the Minuteman is up and running. Congress has also called for a new strategic bomber.

In our rush to reduce our nuclear weapons, however, and to fully embrace the goal of "Global Zero," we cannot forget the need for what is known as "strategic stability" – which means "numbers matter." In a crisis between the United States and Russia, we want neither country to reach for the guns in their respective nuclear holsters. Not early, not later. Never.

How to do this? Remember April 1994? Serious consideration was being given to reducing nuclear weapons to such numbers where the entire number of nuclear force "targets" in the US arsenal was not much more than a handful. In such an event, such a posture in a crisis might invite Russia to strike first—after all, they would have to only eliminate two relatively soft military bases where our submarines are ported, and over time find our submarines at sea.

Former Senator John Warner once said that when he was Secretary of the Navy, his biggest fear was a phone call announcing that one of our nuclear armed submarines — a "boomer" — had not come home. As former USAF Chief of Staff General Larry Welch has repeatedly warned: over time, our Trident submarines could be taken out — if the oceans became transparent. Both he and Senator Warner have said our insurance policy, now and into the future was hundreds of Minuteman missiles now deployed in silos over five western states, in our heartland. Taken together, the submarines and ICBMs work in tandem to protect one another. Both are critical to our nation's future deterrent.

The ICBMs are therefore, for all practical purposes, invulnerable to an effective strike to take them all out. In a crisis, this means a US President need not worry about what former SASC Chairman Sam Nunn warned about: having to "prompt launch" our weapons as quickly as possible in a crisis for fear they would be struck first. Not only is stability enhanced markedly by the full force of the Minuteman, but that fleet is also the most economical nuclear deterrent in our Triad. We spend less than $1 billion a year on ICBMs, or $1 for every $4200 spent by Uncle Sam. The cost is about $2 million per missile warhead per year -- slightly less than the comparable cost of our submarine fleet. On an alert basis, Minuteman is one third the cost.

During that summer in 1994, the Strategic Advisory Group [SAG] wrote to Admiral Chiles: "…As one looks at options to reduce Minuteman III to very low levels, the implications become especially complex and the risks outweigh the savings…US retaliatory capability is severely reduced and [the] targeting of remaining US forces is greatly simplified."

Thus, not all things from the past should be discarded. There is wisdom in what the SAG wrote to the Admiral; there is wisdom in what the Admiral wrote the Secretary of Defense; and there is wisdom in the remarks of the late Senator Strom Thurmond.

In this day and age of terror masters and terrorists, of potential misunderstandings and uncertainty, a secure, protected and stable deterrent that includes 450 Minuteman and 12-14 strategic submarines and the requisite number of bombers remain America's best shield against many nuclear dangers. This was so in 1994; and in 2002. It is also the right thing in 2010. Deterrence remains a top security requirement -- especially tomorrow, as we glimpse only the outlines of an uncertain future.

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