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Opinion The Pentagon plans anew to head off an old worry: nuclear war

A pile of missile remains, collected by members of the State Emergency Service of Ukraine after shellings in Kharkiv, Ukraine on April 25. (Sergey Bobok / AFP)
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Beyond the carnage the Ukraine war has produced on the ground, it has forced military planners to think anew about the risks of nuclear war. For the Pentagon, that means extra urgency in developing a new generation of doomsday weapons that could maintain deterrence.

The Pentagon budget request for fiscal 2023, framed in the shadow of the Ukraine confrontation, has a stronger strategic-weapons emphasis, including a new-generation intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) known as the Sentinel, a new B-21 manned bomber, and an exotic mix of drones and manned fighters known as Next Generation Air Dominance, or NGAD.

Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall discussed the deterrence problem in an interview with me in late March. The Russian invasion of Ukraine was just a month old, but Kendall noted the danger of escalation: “We’re dealing with a nuclear-armed state; you cannot ignore that as you make decisions about how to respond.”

Russian scaremongering about nuclear weapons has continued through the Ukraine crisis. “The risk is serious, real. It should not be underestimated,” Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said this week of the danger of nuclear conflict. Russian President Vladimir Putin warned Wednesday of a “lightning fast” retaliation against any strategic threats to Russia.

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“World War II-style conflict that could involve nuclear weapons is not in anybody’s interest,” Kendall stressed in our interview last month. “That’s pretty obvious. But that doesn’t mean that somebody is not going to make a mistake in taking an aggressive action, thinking that the other side is not going to fight and then finds out that they do.” That, he said, “ends in a very difficult situation.”

Kendall said his thinking about deterrence has been focused for more than a decade on China, rather than Russia. “The scenario that I was really worried about was one in which China would commit an act of either coercion or aggression, and the U.S. would have two options: back down or lose. And neither one of those was very attractive.”

Rather than back down or lose in Ukraine, the Biden administration has adopted a third approach: working with NATO allies to pump weapons to a Ukrainian military that has proved surprisingly adept in matching Russia in conventional warfare. U.S. officials have seemed confident that Russia won’t take the risk of challenging NATO by using tactical nuclear weapons, but recent Russian statements have underlined the importance of firm deterrence.

The new weapons on the Pentagon’s budget roster aren’t as flashy as Russia’s much-touted hypersonic missiles, but they will modernize the United States’ strategic arsenal after what some claim has been years of neglect. “We’re going to invest in the planned recapitalization of the nuclear triad,” Kendall told me, referring to the combination of land-based ICBMs, bombers and missile-carrying submarines that are designed to provide a deterrent capable of surviving a first strike.

The Air Force says it plans to increase spending for the new Sentinel ICBM by $1.1 billion in fiscal 2023 to $3.6 billion, with a goal of installing operational missiles by 2029. The Air Force describes the Sentinel as a “next generation” missile that will have more advanced launch and command-and-control features than the aging Minuteman III system, built in the 1970s.

The Air Force wants to spend about $5 billion in the next fiscal year on the B-21 bomber, known as the Raider, according to a recent article in Breaking Defense. Through fiscal 2027, spending will total nearly $20 billion on the advanced bomber, according to Air Force Magazine. Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr., the Air Force chief of staff, describes the stealthy B-21 as a penetrating bomber that can “strike any target, anytime, anywhere, even in the most contested environment.” Many of its capabilities and its delivery date are classified.

Kendall is also pushing the initiative to mix human and machine pilots in the Next Generation Air Dominance program. A plane flown by a human — a “play caller,” says Kendall — would be accompanied by up to five unmanned combat aircraft. The Air Force will spend nearly $1.7 billion for this innovative program in fiscal 2023, a $133 million increase. When I asked about dogfight simulations that measure human pilots against robots, Kendall remarked that autonomous systems will one day surpass human capabilities. “There is no question in my mind that machines are going to be better at this than people,” Kendall told me. “They’re going to be faster. They’re not going to get tired, and they’ll push the envelope further to the limits of the aircraft.”

Kendall, like all senior Pentagon officials, insists that the United States won’t get involved in a direct military confrontation with Russia unless NATO is attacked. But the Ukraine war has intensified the strategic modernization effort already underway at the Pentagon — and has pushed military planners, as in the depths of the Cold War, to think more about the unthinkable.