Nuclear weapons modernization: not fast enough for Kyl

Walter Pincus
Reporter February 27, 2012

The United States is moving on a costly modernization of its nuclear Triad: the submarines, strategic bombers and land-based missiles that can deliver nuclear weapons to targets across the world.

But the pace is apparently not fast enough for Sen. Jon Kyl (Ariz.), the leading Republican spokesman on the subject.

Speaking about reductions in the 2013 Pentagon budget, Kyl recently said that President Obama had broken the modernization promises he made last year to gain Republican support for ratification of the new Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (START) with Russia. “Congress is going to have to address that,” Kyl vowed, speaking at a Feb. 16 conference put together by the American Enterprise Institute, the Foreign Policy Initiative and the Heritage Foundation.

Let me review Kyl’s concerns one at a time.

He said the follow-on Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine “has been delayed by two years.” That’s true, but there is $565 million in the Navy’s 2013 research and development budget for the program, on top of $2 billion already spent. Another $1 billion is in the 2013 budget for the sub’s nuclear propulsion reactor.

Work is being done on designing the missile-launch system as well as the compartments that hold the missiles. The new sub will hold 16 or 20 missiles where the older ones have 24. To aid the new sub’s stealth capability, testing is underway to hide its wake and electric signatures as well as sensors used to determine threats.

The now-projected two-year delay means that the U.S. fleet of nuclear-armed submarines will dip below 12 for a year or two around 2030; the Pentagon says a dozen of the subs are needed to maintain patrols.

Kyl also said he was concerned about “funding for a new strategic bomber, [which is] basically just on the drawing boards and there is no commitment that it will be nuclear certified.”

The Air Force’s 2013 budget has $292 million for what is now called the Long-Range Strike-B (LRS-B) program, a stealth bomber capable of carrying nuclear weapons that could be flown by remote control. “This follow-on bomber represents a key component to the joint portfolio of conventional and nuclear deep strike capabilities,” according to Air Force budget documents. The initial aircraft will be for use with conventional weapons, although they will be structured to carry nuclear weapons in later versions.

Air Force officials have set an initial target price of $550 million each for the aircraft. One hint of the importance of the program is the sharp increase in proposed spending over the years leading up to 2017. In 2014, spending on the strategic bomber program is set at $560 million, the next year $1 billion, followed by $1.7 billion in 2016 and $2.7 billion in 2017.

Meanwhile the Air Force plans to retain the upgraded B-52s through at least 2035.

Kyl also said, “there’s no clear plan for a new” intercontinental ballistic missile. But the 2013 budget contains $11.7 million to begin analysis of alternatives for the successor to the Minuteman III ICBM, picking up from a long-range planning project begun in earlier years. Budget documents show the technology development phase is to begin in 2015 and be completed by 2017.

Last year, the Air Force produced a detailed Intercontinental Ballistic Missile Master Plan to upgrade Minuteman IIIs for service through 2030 and keep the industrial base viable while examining potential follow-on systems under the newly named Ground-Based Strategic Deterrence program.

Today the United States has about 1,800 warheads deployed and available for delivery on 450 land-based Minuteman III ICBMs, 14 ballistic missile submarines and 60 strategic bombers. The number of warheads will drop to 1,550 by 2018 under START.

Kyl is right that it would be almost unthinkable for Obama to propose that the United States go down to 300 to 800 warheads, a possibility mentioned in a recent news report. Even fewer than 1,000 would probably bring criticism because of the political and foreign policy reasons that Kyl noted.

But Kyl also said the 300 lower number would not permit the United States to hold an enemy’s “military assets at risk.”

“If you just have a few, your deterrent is essentially to hold civilians at risk, innocent civilians in cities, because that's all the weapons you have to put against targets,” he said.

Hiroshima and Nagasaki were deemed military targets. Just two atomic bombs, each having much less than half the explosive power of almost all U.S. strategic warheads, killed or wounded half the citizens of both those cities. Nuclear weapons are terror weapons. If any are ever used again, civilians will bear the brunt of the attack, no matter what the “target.”

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