ARLINGTON, Va. --- Asserting that “the price of preserving our nuclear deterrent is nothing compared to the price of losing it,” Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein offered a comprehensive rationale June 26 for modernizing the nation’s three-legged nuclear capability.
“When asked whether we still require all three of these legs of the triad, I answer, ‘we do’,” Goldfein said in remarks at a Mitchell Institute breakfast on Capitol Hill attended by influential members of Congress and staff as well as defense analysts, industry officials and media.
“And this position has been backed up by every president and Congress since the nuclear umbrella was created,” he said.
The United States remains the world’s most potent nuclear force, Goldfein said. But the nation cannot be complacent, especially at a time when Russia and China are moving to modernize and diversify their nuclear capabilities and when the core components of the U.S. nuclear capability are aging.
“We are not interested in pursuing a repeat of the Cold War, but we must recognize that our adversaries have not reciprocated our commitment to reducing the potential role of nuclear weapons in war,” Goldfein said.
“As we face this return to great power competition, we must acknowledge that our nuclear deterrent is a national asset and therefore demands a national commitment,” he said. “ … To compete, deter, and if deterrence fails to win in this new era of great power competition, nuclear modernization is a fundamental necessity.”
Accomplishing the goal, however, will not be easy or inexpensive, Goldfein conceded. The Congressional Budget Office, which is an independent authority on fiscal questions for Congress, estimated in a January analysis that it would cost $494 billion between 2019 and 2028 for the Department of Defense and the Department of Energy to meet all nation’s nuclear defense requirements. Measured another way, at the height of the nuclear modernization effort, it will cost about 6% of the Department of Defense’s budget to operate and modernize the triad.
The final contours of the strategy and its ultimate cost will emerge as Congress completes work on the annual defense blueprint. But no matter what the final decisions are, the Air Force will play a major role since historically the Air Force’s planes and intercontinental ballistic missiles have accounted for two-thirds of the triad.
Also beyond doubt is that key components of the air, land and sea nuclear triad that has served the United States well since the 1950s and which the U.S. still relies on are far beyond their design life expectancy.
“The B-52 will be 90 to 100 years old when it goes to the Boneyard and the Minuteman III (intercontinental ballistic missile) was put in the ground in 1973 with a plan to do two life extensions. We’re now on our third and we really don’t want to contemplate a fourth,” Goldfein said.
Most of the “pits” that are the essential part for nuclear warheads but which deteriorate over time were manufactured in the 1980s. The infrastructure at bases servicing legs of the triad is aging too. Even the highly trained nuclear engineers whose skill and innovation have kept the force at peak readiness are aging.
“I’ve had the chance to visit many corners of our nuclear enterprise and one observation is that many of our nuclear engineers are as old as me,” said the 60-year-old Goldfein. “We need more young Americans studying nuclear physics and engineering with an intent to employ their skills in defense of our nation.”
Despite uncertainty – both technical and political – progress in modernizing the triad is underway. And the pace is quickening, Goldfein said.
The B-21, a state-of-the-art and nuclear-capable bomber is on schedule and is expected to enter service in the mid-2020s. It will replace the venerable B-52.
Likewise, development of the Long-Range Stand-Off is also underway. That system will replace the air launch cruise missile, which is 25 years past its design life.
“The LRSO will provide a cost-effective, force multiplier for our nuclear bombers,” Goldfein said. “It is on schedule to achieve initial operating capability in 2030.” Significantly, Goldfein said the new weapon system will allow “the Air force to counter adversaries’ ever-improving integrated air defense with a lethal, tailorable standoff nuclear strike capability.”
More broadly, the Air Force is examining “ways to achieve smart commonality with the Navy to save costs and optimize best practices.” There also have been upgrades to the all-important nuclear command, control and communication system, which Goldfein described as the “central nervous system of our nuclear deterrent.”
Goldfein said his approach is guided by two important beliefs. “I would never advise our civilian leaders to unilaterally disarm when adversaries are building more capacity and capability without getting anything in return,” he said. “And I would never advocate to place ourselves in a position where we might give up our second-strike capability ... causing a potential change in enemy calculus.”
While the challenges are real and difficult, Goldfein stressed that the value and importance is absolute.
“History has shown the nation's investment in these elements are well worth it, especially when compared to the costs – financial and in lives lost – of world wars that we have not experienced since 1945,” he said.
“Our nuclear deterrent underwrites American freedom and prosperity in both competition and war.”