Defense & National Security

Inside America’s Missile Crisis

Inside America’s Missile Crisis

From his earliest days in office, President Barack Obama was clear about his support of nuclear disarmament and desire to pursue a near-term “global zero” free of the game-changing weapons.

Now, with the aging U.S. stockpile badly in need of modernization, and rising threats from hostile and unstable nations like Iran, some worry that the White House will take advantage of automatic defense cuts, referred to as “sequestration” and set for January, to further retard improvements to U.S. missile defense.

Rep. Michael Turner (R-Ohio), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee’s subcommittee on strategic forces, told Human Events that as the impending half-billion dollars in defense cuts draw closer without a winning congressional replacement or alternative, he has heard growing buzz within the ranks of the Defense Department and National Nuclear Security Administration that the cuts will be shifted to nuclear modernization programs.

Even without shifting money around, the slated 9.4 percent off-the-top cut for each defense account, which will total more than $1 billion in National Nuclear Security Administration discretionary spending and more than $800 million in Army and Air Force missile funding, may be enough to scale back or delay program updates that are underway.

Even 90 percent funding of a program may not be enough to keep it on schedule, Turner said—particularly if that program is politically unpopular. “The concern is that as the ten percent cut falls on some of the defense functions, they might choose that as an excuse to back off programs,” Turner said.

Turner and others concerned with maintaining U.S. nuclear resources have been watching Obama’s evolution on the issue of missile defense with concern.

In April 2009, shortly after taking office, the president delivered a speech in Prague espousing, as other presidents have before him, the dream of “a world without nuclear weapons,” while admitting that this ideal was unlikely to be realized in his lifetime. Just a year later, Obama negotiated a New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) with Russia agreeing to a reduction of the U.S. nuclear arsenal to 1,550 deployed strategic nuclear weapons, co-timed with a nuclear posture review that suggested a desire to make more unilateral cuts. In terms of total warheads, according to estimates updated in August by the Arms Control Association, Russia now has a numerical edge over the U.S., with about 5,500 warheads to our 5,000.

“Because of our improved relations, the need for strict numerical parity between the two countries is no longer as compelling as it was during the Cold War,” read a telling statement in the review.

Early this year, news broke that Obama was weighing one of his boldest moves towards U.S. disarmament, one that seemed to hint at a wish to reach nuclear zero—at least in the U.S.—during his second term. The Associated Press reported that plans under development by the Pentagon would reduce U.S. numbers of deployed strategic nuclear weapons by up to 80 percent, to 1950s levels. Only a month later, public outcry arose after an accidental “hot mic” caught Obama apparently negotiating with Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev for more flexibility on missile defense until after his own re-election.

Aging weapons, systems

As the U.S. stockpile dwindles under these planned reductions, the remaining weapons and systems are aging toward instability, with limited plans for modernization on the horizon.

In a presentation delivered this spring, retired admiral and former Strategic Command head Richard Mies laid out a timeline, stretching from the 2020s to the early 2040s, during which a number of key nuclear delivery platforms are expected to become too old to use, with no clear replacement plan yet in evidence.

The Air Force’s 1970s-era Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles are now undergoing modernization and maintenance to help them last until roughly 2030, staving off for now a full-bore replacement program, which could take years to develop.

With U.S. ballistic missile submarines aging out beginning in 2027, a replacement program, the new SSBN-X class, was delayed by two years in the White House budget request released at the beginning of this year. The new submarines are now planned for a 2029 deployment if the program faces no further delays. Pentagon officials admitted in a January 2012 planning document that the current setback would “create challenges in maintaining current at-sea presence requirements in the 2030s.”

An update in the 2020 timeframe is planned to the Air Force’s aging B-2 and B-52 bombers, but service officials have left doubt as to whether the expensive new aircraft will be nuclear-armed or not.

Russia modernizes nuclear platforms

Meanwhile, Russia is completing a decade of modernizing virtually all of its nuclear platforms, with plans for a new bomber expected to crack Mach 5 speeds, a new cruise missile expected to come online in 2013, and a 2012 ballistic missile submarine, with a new cruise missile sub slated for 2015, among other developments. India and China have also announced recent improvements and breakthroughs with their own programs.

For fiscal year 2013, the White House proposed $9.7 billion in spending on missile defense, a cut of roughly seven percent from the previous year. Critics say that, even before considering the possibility of sequestration, that figure just isn’t enough.

“We have neglected for decades the nuclear arsenal, the systems that support it, the infrastructure upon which they rely, and most importantly, the industrial capability, without which they cannot remain safe, reliable, effective, and credible,” said Frank Gaffney, a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear Forces and Arms Control Policy in the Reagan administration. Gaffney said if pending defense cuts are used as a form of “erosion by design” on U.S. missile defense, the intercontinental ballistic missiles—the land-based leg of the nuclear triad and the weapons most exclusively nuclear in purpose—might be most vulnerable to deep cuts or elimination.

“We will be in due course unable to sustain a safe, reliable, effective deterrent,” he said. “The day is not far off that we are not certain of the reliability of our nuclear arsenal. That’s a provocative thing for our adversaries.”

As Stephen Rademaker, a former Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation under George W. Bush, testified in a July hearing before the strategic forces subcommittee, our adversaries’ decisions to build their own nuclear stockpiles appear to have no correlation (or at least, not a positive one) to U.S. nuclear disarmament.

Allies rely on U.S. nuclear arsenal

Rademaker pointed out that many countries, including much of Europe and East Asia, opt to rely on the U.S. “nuclear umbrella” instead of building their own weapons cache. The rogue nations, such as Iran and North Korea, would be undeterred, and perhaps encouraged in their nuclear ambitions, at the prospect of U.S. disarmament.

“The notion that by giving up our nuclear weapons, we are going to inspire others to join us in doing more, there’s simply no evidence that this works,” he said.

“We’ve had three and a half years of the Obama administration, and I would argue that in the Obama administration there is no evidence that this works. I could point to instances where we’re getting less cooperation than we have in the past.”

The idea that disarmament will preempt devastating violence is a concept that predates the nuclear era, according to Discovery Institute Fellow John Wohlstetter. In his 2012 book “Sleepwalking with the Bomb,” he recalls the Warren Harding-era maxim, “Big ships cause big wars, little ships cause little wars, and no ships cause no wars.”

But Wohlstetter told Human Events that the ideal of nuclear zero, regardless of the optimism of the U.S. administration, could never be achieved while nations such as Iran, or, in another era, Fidel Castro’s Cuba, were willing to risk crippling losses to their own nations in order to obliterate their enemies.

With so many uncertainties and unknowns in this era, including the emergence of a nuclear Pakistan and broad gaps in intelligence about China’s program, needed updates to American defenses cannot be postponed or belittled, he said.

“They have to be done,” Wohlstetter said. “We’ve been living off the fat of the land with defense and letting our lead atrophy, and this is dangerous.”

Some improvement plans pending

In the FY 2013 National Defense Authorization Act, which passed the House months ago and awaits a vote in the Senate, Turner and his subcommittee added back a portion of missile defense funding that Obama had cut in the White House request.

Funds in the version passed by the House would provide for modernization of three guided missile cruisers scheduled for retirement, improvements to aging missile silos, and exploratory study of an East Coast missile defense site. Even though the additions to Obama’s budget request are relatively modest, the National Defense Authorization Act has already earned a veto threat for exceeding set spending caps.

Turner said he is hopeful, however, that the bill will come to a vote in the Senate following the November election. Failure to avert the sequester, of course, could impede or devastate all these improvement plans. But faced with fast-aging missile defense platforms and a shortening timeline to begin new development, he has to keep pushing.

“I think we have spent all the slack that we have in the system,” Turner said. “I think we’re to the point where there are no other available options but get this job done.”

Gaffney remains skeptical that progress toward modernization will be made in an administration so eager to give up increasing shares of its stockpile. “It’s not just a matter of money,” he said. “It’s a matter of policy. Policy that will put us out of the business.”

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