Carter Makes Pitch to Modernize Nuclear Triad

An unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile launches during an operational test on Feb. 25, 2016, at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. (U.S. Air Force photo/Kyla Gifford)An unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile launches during an operational test on Feb. 25, 2016, at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. (U.S. Air Force photo/Kyla Gifford)

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter made the case Monday for a down payment of $108 billion over the next five years in the long-term effort to modernize the nation’s nuclear triad that will eventually cost hundreds of billions.

Since the end of the Cold War, “we only made modest investments in basic sustainment and operations, about $15 billion a year” on maintaining the nuclear deterrent “and it turned out that wasn’t enough,” Carter said in an address to members of the 5th Bomb Wing and 91st Missile Wing at Minot Air Force Base in South Dakota.

“For 2017, our budget invests a total of $19 billion in the nuclear enterprise,” Carter said, although Congress has yet to pass the budget.

“That’s part of $108 billion we plan to invest over the next five years to sustain and recapitalize the nuclear force and associated strategic command, control, communications, and intelligence systems – ranging from increased funding for manpower, equipment, vehicles, and maintenance, to technological efforts that will help sustain our bomber fleet,” Carter said.

The $108 billion would essentially be a down-payment on the long-term project to to overhaul the entire nuclear triad by building new Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles to replace the Minuteman III ICBMs, replace the Ohio class ballistic submarines and build a new fleet of strategic bombers to be called B-21 Raiders.

The Air Force has estimated that the cost of the new Ground Based Strategic Deterrent ICBMs over the next 20 years would come to about $86 billion. A Government Accountability Office report earlier this year estimated the cost of the new Columbia class submarines at $97 billion. The Air Force has kept a lid on overall projected costs for the Northrop Grumman B-21s but the projected cost for a single B-21 was about $550 million.

A number of think tanks and experts, noting the tendency of defense projects to run well over budget, have estimated that the cost of the new weapons and associated costs could run into the hundreds of billions and possibly $1 trillion.

“We flat can’t afford it, and from a priorities standpoint, it’s the wrong priority in the world that we face,” Rep. Adam Smith, a Washington state Democrat and ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, told a Washington forum last week, Agence France Presse reported.

Carter spoke at a lectern in a hangar at Minot, home to both ICBMs and nuclear-capable bombers in the Global Strike Command. The nose of a B-52 Stratofortress formed the backdrop.

The stop at Minot was the first this week for Carter in a pitch on the necessity for overhauling all three legs of the triad. On Tuesday and Wednesday, Carter will be at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico and the Energy Department’s nuclear weapons laboratories nearby at Sandia and Los Alamos.

Carter said the triad formed the basis of the deterrent but “There’s also our fleet of dual-capable aircraft, those select fighter jets that extend a nuclear umbrella over our allies. And then, just as critical, is the network of capabilities that enable nuclear command, control, communications, and intelligence.”

“Since we’ve never found a perfect defense against nuclear weapons, only you can truly deter nuclear attacks that would result in enormous devastation,” Carter told the Minot airmen.

Carter said it was vital to develop new systems to prevent an erosion of the deterrent as potential adversaries make advances.

“We didn’t build new types of nuclear weapons or delivery systems for the last 25 years, but others did, at the same time that our allies in Asia, the Middle East, and NATO did not,” Carter said. “So we must continue to sustain our deterrence.”

“Russia, for instance, has long been a nuclear power, but Moscow’s recent nuclear saber-rattling and building of new nuclear weapons systems raises serious questions about its leaders’ commitment to strategic stability, their regard for customary expectations against using nuclear weapons, and whether they respect the profound caution that Cold War-era leaders showed with respect to brandishing nuclear weapons,” Carter said.

In addition, “North Korea’s nuclear and missile provocations underscore that a diverse and dynamic spectrum of nuclear threats still exists. So our deterrence must be credible, and extended to our allies in the region,” Carter said.

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Richard Sisk
Richard Sisk is a reporter for Military.com. He can be reached at richard.sisk@military.com.