The Chief of Naval Operations on Tuesday said the U.S. must move faster on new capabilities to support its nuclear deterrent, such as finding a “cost-effective, credible” replacement for the Trident II ballistic missile, adding the Navy can no longer rely on a readiness advantage in the strategic weapon space. 

Adm. John Richardson told attendees at a Mitchell Institute event the Navy will continue to face increasing “grey-zone activity” from adversaries and called for exploring capabilities such as low-yield nuclear weapons to account for new asymmetric threats.

Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Adm. John Richardson, the 31st CNO. (Photo: U.S. Navy)

 “We need new programs. We need to move capability into the fleet faster. Our inability to do that, despite what we might describe as a good old college try, is going to be a strategic Achilles’ heel,” Richardson said. “We need to restore our technical agility, our ability to move technology into our people’s hands faster.”

Richardson noted adversaries push to build up their own strategic weapons capacity, seamlessly moving between low and high-end threats.

“If we ignore that trend, we are going to find ourselves catching up,” Richardson said. “It’s different thinking than always trying to go to the high-end spectrum of conflict and making sure you’ve got that down. It’s costly there, and it’s kind of a finite game when you get up there. It seems to our competitors are onto that strategy and are making an awful lot of progress on the lower end of that spectrum.”

Low-yield nuclear weapons, such as the W76-2 submarine-launched, ballistic missile warhead, have been proposed as an option to fill a deterrence capability gap after Russia developed such a capability. 

“That tries to address some of these asymmetries that have emerged since we last really did some research on this,” Richardson said. 

Lawmakers have debated the issue at length in recent weeks, with regards to funding W76-2 development, with the House ultimately moving to bar funding for the program in its version of the next defense policy bill (Defense Daily, June 19). 

Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), the House Armed Services Committee chairman, has called it a “destabilizing move to put these [weapons] on submarines” (Defense Daily, June 10). 

Air Force Gen. Paul Selva, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters in June he does not believe there’s a conventional weapon right now that would create the same outcome as a low-yield capability, and without such a weapon in the nuclear arsenal the U.S. would “have to respond with a high-yield nuclear weapon, which many would argue is disproportionate” (Defense Daily, June 18). 

Richardson also reiterated the importance of maintaining the Trident II with a “serious life extension program,” including updating the missile’s subsystems and recapitalizing its launchers, as a critical component to his nuclear deterrence outlook.

Adversaries’ moves to operate in the “grey-zone” at levels below armed conflict are continuing to push the Navy’s direction to modernize its nuclear posture, according to Richardson. 

“It’s confounding us right now. In fact, we don’t even know what to call it. I think we need to focus on it more,” Richardson said. “Deterrence, like the rest of the environment, is growing increasingly complex. I think our overall response has got to be a mixture of many elements of deterrence. An absolute fundamental part of that is going to be getting the nuclear part right. But it’s got to be tailored to specific actors.”