The Pentagon’s newly released nuclear posture review (NPR) reaffirms existing plans to modernize the nation’s aging nuclear arsenal, saying a robust suite of air-, ground- and sea-based systems will be needed to deter attacks by potential adversaries for the foreseeable future.

To give the president even more options, the report, released Feb. 2, calls for lowering the yield of some nuclear warheads on existing submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs). It also recommends developing and fielding a nuclear-armed, submarine-launched cruise missile (SLCM). 

The Air Force in 2016 unveiled the name of the future B-21 bomber: the "Raider."  (Credit: Marc Selinger/Defense Daily)
The Air Force in 2016 unveiled the name of the future B-21 bomber: the “Raider.” (Credit: Marc Selinger/Defense Daily)

“There is no ‘one size fits all’ for deterrence,” the report says. “Consequently, the United States will apply a tailored and flexible approach to effectively deter across a spectrum of adversaries, threats and contexts.”

The report describes the low-yield SLBM warhead as “a comparatively low-cost and near-term modification to an existing capability that will help counter any mistaken perception of an exploitable ‘gap’ in U.S. regional deterrence capabilities.”

The SLCM is a longer-term effort that will use existing technologies to help keep its cost down. The effort will begin with a “capability study,” which will lead to an analysis of alternatives “for the rapid development of a modern SLCM,” the report says. The United States had such a missile for decades, but the Obama administration announced its retirement in 2010.

The report endorses current modernization efforts, including the Navy’s new Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine, the Air Force’s new B-21 Raider bomber, the Air Force’s new intercontinental ballistic missile, a new air-launched cruise missile for Air Force bombers, a new ballistic missile for Navy submarines, a series of life extensions for bombs and warheads, upgrades to the nuclear command-and-control system, and modifications to allow F-35 Joint Strike Fighters to carry nuclear weapons in addition to conventional ones.

John Rood, undersecretary of defense for policy, told reporters at the Pentagon that the NPR results will be reflected in the Trump administration’s fiscal year 2019 budget request, slated for release Feb. 12. DoD formally launched the review in April at the direction of President Donald Trump.

The NPR report says that maintaining today’s nuclear arsenal costs about 3 percent of the annual defense budget and that replacing the aging systems will cost another 3 to 4 percent.

The NPR received mixed reaction on Capitol Hill. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), the chairmen of the Senate and House Armed Services Committees, both welcomed the review, saying its recommendations are a small price to pay to keep the nation safe.

The NPR “sets out a responsible and sustainable path forward, building on policies that have kept us safe for a generation and adapting capabilities to new threats,” Thornberry said. “It assures that our deterrent will be taken seriously by our adversaries and allies alike, while keeping the total cost below 7 percent of what the Department of Defense spends to protect the country.”

But Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, called the NPR unaffordable. Not counting the new administration’s new initiatives, the Congressional Budget Office has estimated that modernizing, operating and sustaining U.S. nuclear forces will cost about $1.2 trillion over the next three decades (Defense Daily, Oct. 31, 2017), Smith noted.

“The U.S. Congress is currently unable to fund the existing, unrealistic $1.2 trillion plan to upgrade our nuclear weapons enterprise,” Smith said. “By requesting even more new nuclear weapon systems and additional unneeded capacity, President Trump is making the problem worse.”

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Air Force Gen. Paul Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, are scheduled to testify about the review, as well as the new national defense strategy, before the House Armed Services Committee on Feb. 6. DoD unveiled the defense strategy last month, saying the department’s main focus will be the return of great-power competition.