The current trillion-dollar nuclear modernization regime is based on obsolete thinking that fails to consider the emerging nuclear danger posed by China, the head of U.S. Strategic Command said Monday at the virtual STATCOM Nuclear Deterrence Symposium.

The U.S. is modernizing against old requirements

developed with the assumption that China is a lesser included case in the nuclear threat-scape an assumption, Adm. Charles Richard said, that isnt true anymore.

Richard made his point Monday in an online address to the annual gathering, which remained a virtual meet-up this year instead of the usual late-summer, mass-descent on Omaha, Neb., near STRATCOM headquarters. 

The top U.S. nuclear commander spoke only days after a liberal bloc of House Democrats, with enough votes to obstruct their own party’s agenda, urged President Biden to cut the nuclear arsenal as part of a nuclear posture review (NPR) the administration could publish as soon as January as part of a broader national defense strategy.

Richard wound up rebutting the lawmakers’ letter, intentionally or not, citing an apparent buildup in China’s nuclear arsenal that, the commander said — echoing military messaging from the past several years — belies Beijing’s stated policies of no first-use and minimal deterrence.

“China’s growth is so great that had we not been in the middle of an NPR, I would have called for one because I think the magnitude of the change in the threat from China alone would have justified it,” Richard said in his keynote address to the virtual symposium.

It was the latest volley in a debate over U.S. nuclear forces that has only been heating up since the Biden administration tipped its hand and revealed that it would not move for changes to the arsenal, or the civilian nuclear weapons production complex that maintains it, until at least next year.

The administration’s 2022 budget request for nuclear forces, which Congress has granted in draft appropriations and authorization bills awaiting further votes, made essentially no changes to the Trump administration’s nuclear modernization plans — plans that added only incrementally to the Obama administration’s modernization plans, which called for a refresh of delivery systems, warheads and carrier craft over 30 years beginning in 2016.

The refresh would essentially keep the U.S. within the limits allowed by the New START treaty signed with Russia during the Obama administration, which limits Washington and Moscow to 1,500 deployed strategic warheads each.

The same day Richard spoke, former Obama administration arms-control negotiator Rose Gottemoeller, herself a guest of STRATCOM Deterrence Symposia past, repeated in The Hill that China’s nuclear arsenal is, despite the recent discovery of what many believe to be intercontinental ballistic missile silos, much smaller than the U.S.’ arsenal and would be so even if each of the new silos was filled with a nuclear-tipped rocket.

The Biden nuclear posture review has vast implications for the industry, which is only in the early stages of replacing Minuteman III missiles with Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) Missiles to be manufactured by Northrop Grumman [NOC] under a nine-year contract worth awarded in 2019 and worth more than $13 billion over 10 years, and replacing Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines with bigger, more durable Columbia-class boats from General Dynamics [GD] Electric Boat.

Like Pentagon contractors, the stakes are high for the Department of Energy contractors who manage the nuclear weapons complex for the agency’s semi-autonomous National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) . 

GBSD is a favorite target of the growing contingent of liberal lawmakers seeking to slow modernization by prolonging the life of the Minuteman III fleet, which would not need — at least in the short term — any of the new warhead cores the NNSA is preparing to cast at plutonium pit factories planned for the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and the Savannah River Site in South Carolina at a combined lifecycle cost of at least $30 billion.

With regard NNSA programs, Friday’s letter from the House progressives called out the W93 submarine launched ballistic missile warhead that’s now in the very early stages of development at Los Alamos National Laboratory, and the B83 service life extension that the Biden administration requested, and which Congress has proposed to fund in appropriations bills that were awaiting further votes at deadline Monday.

The former would eventually replace the W88 and W76 warheads used aboard Trident II submarine-launched ballistic missiles while the latter would retain a megaton-capable gravity bomb with earth-penetrating features until the NNSA finishes the B61-12 gravity bomb: a homogenization of four different versions of that weapon that would result in a single variant with what the Air Force has called its own modest, earth-penetrating capability.

Biden should “use the forthcoming Nuclear Posture Review to set a nuclear strategy that aims to limit the role of nuclear weapons in our national security, reduces unnecessary spending, and sets the stage for progress towards your recent agreement with Russian President Vladimir Putin to pursue additional arms control and risk reduction measures,” the House members wrote in their letter, which was led by Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.).