Last week, I participated in an online panel on Modernizing America’s Strategic Arsenal sponsored by the Advanced Nuclear Weapons Alliance. ANWA, as it’s called, is one of the few think tanks in Washington that focuses on the lingering demands of nuclear deterrence – and what might happen if those demands aren’t met.
Since everyone else in the group had higher qualifications than mine, I decided that instead of just wreaking havoc, I should prepare a PowerPoint brief setting out the case for nuclear modernization in layman’s terms. . Here is the resulting presentation, which I call “No Way Out: Why Nuclear Modernization is Needed”.
The above slide illustrates what would happen if a 500 kiloton nuclear warhead of the type common in Russia’s strategic arsenal were to explode over an American city. The distance in miles of the explosion is shown at the bottom of the diagram and the corresponding damage level at the top. The numbers in the diagram describe the pounds of blast pressure per square inch above normal atmospheric pressure (14.7 pounds at sea level).
About 98% of all people in the circle where an overpressure of 12 psi or more occurs would be killed quickly. There would also be many deaths outside this circle, with survivors frequently suffering from skull fractures, eardrum failures, severe lacerations, radiation poisoning and / or burns. But calling 911 would be pointless, because all networks would be destroyed and electronic devices would be rendered inoperative by electromagnetic pulse.
Russia has around 700 warheads of this explosive power directed at America, plus a greater number of warheads with lower yields.
There is no practical way to defend the United States from a full scale nuclear attack. If even 5% of the warheads in the Russian arsenal reached American shores, that would be enough to destroy the American economy and social fabric. The American strategy therefore consists of deter an attack by threatening potential aggressors with unacceptable retaliation. By supporting a “triad” of nuclear forces capable of retaliating, no matter how powerful a surprise attack, Washington seeks to ensure that no enemy will have a rational justification for launching nuclear weapons.
However, all of the nuclear triad weapons that would be used to retaliate have aged. They will have to retire after 2030, which means the government must develop replacements during this decade. Any delay in the modernization process would lead to the unilateral disarmament of the United States due to the advanced age of its strategic arsenal.
Maintaining and modernizing the nuclear triad does not prevent the size of the nuclear arsenal from being reduced. The number of nuclear warheads in Russian and American arsenals today is a small fraction of their number at the height of the nuclear build-up of the Cold War. It is also not extremely expensive to modernize the nuclear arsenal: in previous nuclear investment cycles, it cost more than 10% of the defense budget to maintain and improve the strategic arsenal during the years of spending. peak. If current modernization plans are fully executed, maintaining and improving the nuclear triad will only require 6.4% of the defense budget in the peak year of 2030.
The Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines that carry two-thirds of all warheads in America’s strategic arsenal are scheduled to begin retirement at the end of this decade (they’re already operating on lifespan extensions). Because they are very resilient when at sea and provide an assured retaliatory capability that is essential to deterrence, the Navy sees their replacement as its top investment priority. The plan is to build 12 Columbia-class submarines, each carrying 16 D5 ballistic missiles with multiple warheads. The lead Columbia-class ship is scheduled to conduct its first deterrence patrol in 2031.
Land-based Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles have been deployed in underground silos in the upper Midwest since 1970. They are long past their original lifespan and will no longer be reliable after 2030. Without 400 ICBMs – each of which would have need to be targeted separately in a surprise attack – Russia would be able to disarm the United States by destroying less than 20 targets. Experts don’t expect attackers to be able to target US submarines at sea in the near future, but ICBMs are a safeguard against future breakthroughs in anti-submarine warfare that could call into question the credibility of American retaliatory capabilities.
All aircraft in the US nuclear-capable bomber fleet will need to carry air-launched cruise missiles in the future to penetrate enemy air defenses. Even the new, highly survivable B-21 bomber may need the range extension capabilities of a next-generation dead end weapon to hit the full range of strategic targets. The current cruise missile carried by US strategic bombers was deployed four decades ago with an expected lifespan of ten years; it cannot function much longer and must therefore be replaced by a “Long Range Standoff (LRSO)” weapon to ensure the retaliatory capability of the triad’s bombardment force.
The bottom line about nuclear modernization plans is that Washington has waited as long as possible to replace its aging deterrent. If it is delayed any longer, the ability of the force to deter a nuclear attack in the event of a crisis will become questionable.
Several companies involved in the nuclear modernization program contribute to my think tank.