Opinion: Why Trump Is Wrong On U.S. Nuclear Modernization

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Donald Trump made a sweeping claim during Sunday night’s explosive presidential debate that America's nuclear weapons capability has fallen far behind Russia’s. But the facts don’t back up his assessment.

Donald Trump made a sweeping claim during Sunday night’s explosive presidential debate that America's nuclear weapons capability has fallen far behind Russia’s. But the facts don’t back up his assessment.

“Our nuclear program has fallen way behind. And [Russia has] gone wild with their nuclear program. Not good,” Trump said during his second debate with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. “Russia is new in terms of nuclear. We are old. We are tired. We are exhausted in terms of nuclear.”

This is just not true. The U.S. is actually in the midst of modernizing all three legs of its nuclear triad: the U.S. Navy’s Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines (SSBN), armed with Trident submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM); the U.S. Air Force’s Cold-War era B-52 strategic bombers that carry the nuclear-tipped air-launched cruise missile (ALCM); and the Air Force’s silo-based intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Though Trump’s claim that the U.S. “has fallen way behind” in terms of nuclear modernization doesn’t hold up under scrutiny, he is correct that Russia is farther along in its upgrade program than the U.S. However, that is simply because the U.S. and Russia have different cycles of modernization for their nuclear arsenals, and those cycles don’t happen in the same time period, according to Hans Kristensen, director of the Federal of American Scientists’ Nuclear Information Project.

The U.S. last modernized its nuclear triad in the late 1980s, so there is no need to replace the arsenal until the 2020s or 2030s, Kristensen said. By contrast, Russia’s warheads and delivery systems aren’t designed to last as long. 

“This just shows that he misunderstands the issue, because it’s not about what you are building when, it’s about are the ones that you have ready to be used or credible?” said Kristensen. “I don’t think there’s anyone in the U.S. military who would say sure, let’s swap.” 

Most recently, the Air Force kicked off two multibillion-dollar competitions to upgrade the nuclear arsenal, issuing requests for proposals in July for the Long-Range Standoff Weapon (LRSO), a replacement for the aging AGM-86B ALCMs, and the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD), the replacement for the 1960s-era Minuteman III ICBMs. LRSO will be the primary standoff weapon for Northrop Grumman’s next-generation B-21 and existing B-2 stealth bombers, and is expected to be fielded by 2030. Meanwhile, GBSD will replace some 450 Minuteman IIIs around the country, and could cost as much as $85 billion.

Meanwhile, the Air Force plans to buy about 100 B-21 “Raider” stealth bombers, which will be capable of dropping both conventional and nuclear bombs, to replace the legacy B-52 and B-1 fleets. After an October 2015 contract award to Northrop for the engineering, manufacturing and development phase, the B-21 program was held up for several months while the Government Accountability Office assessed a bid protest brought by losing team Boeing-Lockheed Martin. But since GAO overruled the protest earlier this year, the program has stayed on track for a 2025 initial operational capability (IOC) date. The Air Force says the B-21 will become nuclear capable within two years of IOC. 

The Navy’s $97 billion Ohio-replacement SSBN(X) effort to build a new class of 12 new Columbia-class SSBNs is the farthest along of all the Pentagon’s nuclear modernization efforts, with advanced procurement slated to begin in 2017. Top service officials are fiercely guarding the costly modernization effort from budget cuts and sequestration, pushing for a standalone fund, called the National Sea-Based Deterrence Fund, to fund SSBN(X) outside the service’s dedicated shipbuilding account.  The Navy expects to buy the first Columbia-class submarine in fiscal 2021 at a price of about $14.5 billion, including $5.7 billion in detailed design and nonrecurring engineering costs for the entire class, and estimates boats 2 through 12 will cost $5.2 billion each.

Simultaneously, the National Nuclear Security Administration is continuing rejuvenation of the precision-guided B61-12 tactical nuclear bomb, which along with LRSO will eventually arm the B-21. The first refurbished unit is expected by fiscal 2020.

Meanwhile, Moscow is certainly making new nuclear delivery systems a national priority, with a new ballistic-missile submarine class and missile in production, as well as continued deliveries of a modern, silo-based and road mobile ICBM.

Russia’s effort to recapitalize its Soviet-era ICBMs with new SS-27 missiles is more than halfway done, and scheduled for completion in 2022, according to a recent report by Kristensen and Robert Norris. Some of these new missiles, which come in two versions, are already in production, Aviation Week reported in 2013: the single-warhead Topol-M was deployed in silos in the late 1990s and as a road-mobile ICBM in 2006. Meanwhile, the RS-24 Yars, a modified Topol-M that can carry multiple, independently targetable warheads, was declared operational in mid-2011 in its silo-launched version, and will be road-mobile as well.  Yars is reportedly capable of carrying four or six warheads.

Moscow is also working on a new heavyweight ICBM called RS-28 Sarmat that is capable of carrying up to ten warheads, Kristensen told Aviation Week. Sarmat is scheduled to begin some test launches this year or next, and will likely be fielded at the turn of the decade. Where U.S. ICBMs are traditionally single-warhead (although some are capable of carrying up to three), Russia has invested in multiple-warhead ICBMs in part to offset a deficit of missile launchers compared to the U.S., Kristenson explained. 

Meanwhile, Russia is also arming its bomber fleet of Tu-160 Blackjacks and Tu-95MS Bears with a new cruise missile, the Kc-102, and plans a new fleet of next-generation PAK DA bombers which are expected to be blended wing-body, stealthy, subsonic aircraft. PAK DA, built by manufacturer Tupolev, has been in development for several years, with a first flight planned for 2019 and delivery to the Russian Air Force around 2023. However, PAK DA has reportedly been delayed.

However, there are signs that PAK DA has been delayed, Kristensen said.  The most significant indication that Moscow is having issues with PAK DA is that Russia recently decided to re-open production of the Blackjack.

“That seems to indicate that they are not switching to the new bomber as early as people have expected,” he said. 

Finally, Russia’s new Project 955a Borey-class fleet of eight total SSBNs, armed with the six-warhead RSM-56 Bulava SLBM, should be ready by 2020. 

STAFF NOTE: this blog entry is the opinion of the author. While we recognize people may hold strong opinions on this issue and we welcome their views, we do not tolerate blatant personal attacks on our staff or guest writers. Any such comment will be removed.

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