To give the Pentagon more money to spend in the future, the U.S. could buy fewer new intercontinental ballistic missiles and again extend its aging fleet of nuclear-tipped Minuteman III missiles, the chair of the House Armed Services Committee said at a conference here Wednesday.
Smith has said nuclear weapons are only useful for deterring a nuclear-armed adversary from using its own nuclear weapons. To that end, the Armed Services chair believes the U.S. does not need “as many warheads and as many delivery systems” as it plans to maintain and modernize over the course of a 30-year, $1-trillion arsenal overhaul the Obama administration started in 2016.
“The rational place to start is to say we’ll do fewer ICBMs,” Smith said in response to a question from Defense Daily during the 10th annual McAleese Defense Programs Conference. “We will perhaps do life extension on some of the existing systems instead of building all new ones.”
The U.S. deploys 400 solid-fueled Minuteman III missiles now and plans to replace those starting in the late 2020s with new intercontinental ballistic missiles to be developed under the Ground Based Strategic Deterrence (GBSD) program. Northrop Grumman [NG] and Boeing [BA], the latter of which built the Minuteman III fleet, are maturing competing GBSD designs under three-year contracts awarded in 2017 and worth about $330 million and $350 million, respectively. The Pentagon plans to procure some 640 GBSD missiles, the Congressional Budget Office wrote in December, but would deploy only 400.
The Pentagon in 2015 finished modernizing the existing Minuteman III fleet, first deployed in 1970 to replace Minuteman II, to stay on the job until 2030. Boeing has argued that fielding its GBSD design would be cheaper than refurbishing Minuteman III again.
The silo-based intercontinental ballistic missile fleet is the most vulnerable part of the U.S. arsenal, Smith said, so “that makes sense to cut.”
The White House has requested $570 million for GBSD in fiscal year 2020: more than $155 million, or about 35 percent, above the 2019 appropriation of $415 million or so. Costs of the the 30-year nuclear modernization and maintenance plan Obama started will peak in the late 2020s, consuming an estimated seven percent or so of the total defense budget.
That will create “fiscal pressure” elsewhere at the Pentagon, Allan Schaffer, deputy undersecretary for acquisition and sustainment, said on the McAleese stage before Smith arrived.
The bilateral New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (Start) between the U.S. and Russia limits each side to 1,500 deployed nuclear warheads through at least 2021. The U.S. deploys its warheads on: Minuteman missiles; gravity bombs and cruise missiles that could be carried by 46 B52-H bombers, 20 B2-A stealth bombers, and some NATO aircraft; and submarine launched launched ballistic missiles carried by a fleet of 14 Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines, around 10 of which are at sea at once.
Aside from replacing Minuteman III missiles with Ground Based Strategic Deterrent missiles, the ongoing nuclear modernization and maintenance program aims to replace the 14 Ohio-class boats with 12 Columbia-class submarines, and eventually phase out the B-52H with a combination of dual-capable F35 aircraft and the planned B-21 Raider bomber.
As the White House rolled out its 2020 budget request this week, Smith has been on tour around Washington crystallizing his nuclear policy positions as the House Armed Services Committee prepares to draft this year’s version of the annual National Defense Authorization Act: the must-pass bill that sets spending limits and policy for defense programs.
On Tuesday at the 2019 Carnegie International Nuclear Policy Conference, Smith reiterated his desire to “kill” the new low-yield, submarine-launched ballistic-missile warhead the Department of Energy plans to deliver to the Navy starting this fiscal year. The Trump administration wants the weapon to deter Russia from using a similarly powerful missile to win a war it starts, but cannot finish, with conventional weapons.
Smith does not accept that the U.S. needs such a weapon to deter a limited nuclear strike by Russia and said, at the Carnegie Conference Tuesday, that any U.S. any adversary that uses any sort of nuclear weapon against the U.S. “will cease to exist” after a retaliatory nuclear strike.
Though he has proposed trimming the arsenal, Smith does not advocate for nuclear disarmament and does advocate for modernizing nuclear forces whether the U.S. and Russia have arms control agreements in place or not. At Carnegie, Smith said conditioning modernization on arms control agreements is “like giving foreign powers veto control over your national security.”