StratCom Chief Says U.S. Nukes ‘Very Close to Zero Percent Modernized’

Although the Department of Energy has nearly finished the first of four ongoing warhead modernization programs, the U.S. nuclear arsenal is “very close to zero-percent modernized,” the general in charge of the Pentagon’s nuclear forces said Wednesday.

“We’re starting down that path,” Air Force Gen. John Hyten, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, said Wednesday in a speech to the Association of the United States Army in Arlington, Va. “For the last three years, we’ve put modernization plans in place.”

Gen. John Hyten, commander of U.S. Strategic Command. Photo: U.S. Air Force.

Gen. John Hyten, commander of U.S. Strategic Command. Photo: U.S. Air Force.

Russia, on the other hand, is closing in on “100 percent modernization,” Hyten said.

From a certain point of view — and despite official assurances from the Pentagon that previous upgrades to nuclear delivery systems, warheads, and other infrastructure have kept the nation’s arsenal war-ready — what Hyten said is true.

Still, the declaration rattled Arms Control Twitter Wednesday, including one retired diplomat whose service focused on Russia and Ukraine.

(1) US and Russia are on very different modernization schedules. (2) Very much doubt Gen Hyten would want to trade US strategic nuclear forces for Russia's.

— Steven Pifer (@steven_pifer) February 28, 2018

Existing bombs, missiles, and warheads are all Cold War vintage, though many have been upgraded since the turn of the century under programs conceived well before 2016, when then-President Barack Obama proposed the $1.2 trillion nuclear modernization and maintenance effort Hyten referenced Wednesday.

Among the modernization efforts that began before the Obama administration’s canonized its long-term nuclear vision as “modernization” was the W76-Mod 1 program at the U.S. Energy Department's National Nuclear Security Administration. Counting planning, the program began in 2000. The NNSA delivered its first refurbished warhead to the Navy in 2008 for use on Trident II D-5 missiles, and plans to deliver the last in 2019, according to the fiscal 2019 budget request the agency unveiled this month.

That leaves three more modernization programs to go at the NNSA. For fiscal 2019, the agency has proposed accelerating work on the W80 life-extension program. That warhead would tip the new air-launched cruise missile to be built by either Lockheed Martin [LMT] or Raytheon [RTN] sometime in the next decade.

The four life-extension programs cost about $1.3 billion in the current budget year. The NNSA wants to increase spending on these programs to almost $2 billion for fiscal 2019, which begins on Oct. 1.

The current modernization program aims to upgrade and maintain the existing nuclear triad for service through 2046. The $1.2 trillion price tag, as estimated by the Congressional Budget Office last year, encompasses $400 billion to build or upgrade hardware such as aircraft, submarines, missiles, warheads and communications infrastructure, and another $800 billion to operate and maintain the arsenal as it ages.

Meanwhile, Hyten called the Trump administration's new Nuclear Posture Review, which proposed adding development of two new low-yield nuclear warheads but not much else to NNSA's already-full plate, "a good document." Hyten's only knock on the review was that it did not also include the forthcoming Missile Defense Review, which the StratCom commander considers inseparable from U.S. nuclear strategy.

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