Declining numbers of nuclear weapons in the U.S. arsenal makes it even more critical to maintain the sea-, land- and air-based delivery systems that make up the “triad” of the strategic fleet and deterrence, the top Air Force general for nuclear deterrence recently said.
Major General William Chambers, assistant chief of staff for strategic deterrence and nuclear integration, said getting rid of one of those capabilities would negatively affect the other two, and a “sweet spot” must be found between cost and utility at a time when the Defense Department is facing budget cuts.
“As numbers decline, it becomes increasingly important to maintain a force structure and a force posture with diverse and complimentary attributes,” Chambers said at a Capitol Hill gathering hosted by the National Defense University Foundation. “The triad is a proven and reliable way to do that even in route to lower numbers.”
The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or New START, signed with Russia last year and ratified by the Senate in December calls on both sides to reduce deployed nuclear warheads to no more than 1,550 from previous levels of 2,200. It also calls for lowering the number of allowed launchers to 800 and total nuclear missiles and heavy bombers to 700.
The military relies on ground-based ICBMs, strategic bombers and submarines to carry nuclear weapons to ensure to a proper balance of weapons systems that creates synergies” for a “total deterrence effect,” Chambers said.
“Reductions in one leg will impact the other legs,” he added.
Pentagon budget documents outline spending $100 billion over the next 10 years on nuclear modernization. It remains unclear how that plan will be affected by the $450 billion in cuts the Pentagon will have to manage over the next decade as part of the effort to rein in the federal deficit.
The austerity measures also come at a time when the Air Force weighs the development of its next generation of long-range, deep-strike bombers and the Navy considers its next ballistic submarine to replace the current fleet of Ohio-class SSBNs.
Senior officers in both services have identified the two programs as high priorities.
Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, then-acquisition chief, told Senate Armed Services Committee at his confirmation hearing the Ohio-class replacement will present budget challenges but that the Pentagon was working to ensure it will stay within costs and schedules.
“While the Ohio replacement program presents certain resource challenges for the department, we are aggressively acting now, during the design phase, to drive down costs while meeting the core military requirements for a survivable nuclear deterrent,” Carter said in written responses to questions posed by SASC.
Retirement of the 14 Ohio-class boomers is slated to begin by the late 2020s. Current plans have the Navy building 12 under the replacement program.
Gen. Norton Schwartz, the Air Force chief of staff, told reporters in September that the new long-range bomber was the service’s top priority, along with the KC-46A aerial refueler and the Joint Strike Fighter. The Air Force plans to buy between 80 and 100 of the future aircraft and the first plane is slated to arrive in the mid-2020s.