World 'We’re always fighting time': Urgency to upgrade US nuclear deterrent as rival upgrades near completion
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FRANCIS E. WARREN AIR FORCE BASE, Wyoming — As reliable as the clanking of railroad cars as they pass through Cheyenne day and night just outside the gates of Francis E. WarrenBase, America’s nuclear arsenal has been at the ready for half a century.
But experts and those protecting the ICBMs now say there is no room left to extend the life of the 1970 Minuteman III missiles even as the nation faces mounting budget pressures.
“You have things that go with aging. We’ve done a number of things to make sure that these missiles maintain at a high alert,” Col. Tytonia Moore, 90th Operations Group commander overseeing the nation’s ICBMs, told the Washington Examiner.
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When the United States was fighting terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan in the 1990s and 2000s to the tune of trillions of dollars, China and Russia were upgrading their nuclear deterrence.
Now, with all reasonable delays and extensions exhausted, the U.S. military faces an urgency to upgrade its nuclear deterrence from 1960s technology if that deterrent is to remain effective.
“Our senior DOD leaders have said that they're too old,” Heritage Foundation nuclear security expert Patty-Jane Geller told the Washington Examiner.
“The time has passed for life-extending. They need to be replaced in order to avoid a gap in our deterrent,” she added.
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The age of America’s arsenal and the forward progress of adversaries has not escaped those responsible for keeping U.S. ICBMs operational and ready.
Col. Damien Schlussel, security forces commander for the 20th Air Force, charged with protecting the nation's ICBMs, would not tell the Washington Examiner how often his security convoys protect missiles or parts returning from silos to the depot for maintenance.
He only stressed the urgency for meeting the modernization targets.
“We’ve been the leader of the free society over time,” he said.
“There’s near peers who want to question that, so they have spent tons of money and tons of GDP to modernize their stuff,” Schlussel told the Washington Examiner. “There’s a bill associated with that.”
In September, the Air Force awarded Northrup Grumman a $13.3 billion contract to upgrade the aging system by 2029, but Congress and the public still question the costs against trillions of dollars spent to rescue the economy amid the coronavirus pandemic.
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Some have called for trimming tens of millions from the defense budget this year and delaying the modernization further.
“The most significant hurdle is really the cost,” Brookings Institution nuclear security expert Frank Rose told the Washington Examiner, noting the Congressional Budget Office expects the full price tag for nuclear modernization to be $1.2 trillion over 30 years.
For Rose, America’s adversaries are already far ahead.
“The Russians, for the most part, completed their nuclear modernization program,” Rose said. “The Chinese are continuing to modernize their nuclear deterrent. Right now, it looks like that modernization program is primarily about maintaining a secure second-strike capability and being able to penetrate any U.S. missile defense system.”
Geller argued of the vital importance of keeping the land-based deterrent. She noted that the 450 ICBMs scattered across six Midwestern states are the most survivable part of the nuclear triad when weighed against the bombers and submarines that can be more easily targeted by adversaries.
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It is fair to be skeptical about whether or not this is really an arms control announcement or just a diversion from COVID-19 and other global unpleasantness. My advice would be to embrace the big picture goal of arms control but not get backed into a corner on the details. Where we can all agree is on the need to put restraints on nuclear weapons. In a time of massive disagreement, that's a useful place to begin.Tara D. Sonenshine is former U.S. under secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs.
“It would take a massive nuclear attack by our adversaries to destroy them all,” she said.
Moore said that despite their age, America’s ICBMs remain at the ready.
“When we say we have on-alert ICBMs, we have on-alert ICBMs,” he said.
“We’re that backstop, that backbone of all the services,” he added. “We’re dealing with a system that came out in the 1960s, and we’ve been able to maintain it to this point, but we’re always fighting time.”
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