We can’t afford to cut America’s nuclear modernization program

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Tensions with China and Russia are higher now than at any point since the Cold War. From Ukraine to the Middle East to the South China Sea to the Korean peninsula, autocrats backed by nuclear weapons are challenging U.S. hegemony. So why are some U.S. politicians suggesting we should cut America’s nuclear arsenal?

The U.S. only recently ended a 35-year modernization holiday. Defense officials have belatedly embarked on a nuclear modernization program to replace our Cold War-era strategic deterrent with new nuclear warheads, missiles, bombers and submarines.

Most of these systems were meant to be retired or replaced decades ago — in some cases back when Ronald Reagan was president — but decades of deferred upkeep has finally caught up with the U.S. Consequently, we are modernizing everything at the same time, which won’t be cheap.

A homeowner who has done no serious home maintenance since 1989 cannot, after 35 years, get away with repairing a few individual shingles on the old roof. He will not be able to afford buying a whole new roof, as well as a water heater, refrigerator, electrical box, furnace and air conditioner, all at once, because it cannot be avoided.

The nuclear modernization program is coming not a moment too soon. In addition to threatening the West with nuclear attacks, Russia has 2,000 more tactical nuclear weapons than the United States. Meanwhile, China is the fastest-growing nuclear power on the planet, building 100 new nuclear warheads a year, and is on track to become a nuclear peer within a decade.

Indeed, a Strategic Posture Commission told Congress that the current nuclear modernization program is “necessary but insufficient” to deter our adversaries from conducting a strategic attack on the United States, and that we should seriously consider expanding our nuclear arsenal.

Yet some members of Congress are suggesting that the U.S. reduce that very “necessary but insufficient” program.

Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.), for example, in a recent exchange with Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro, complained that the nuclear sea-launched cruise missile under development would force our ships to carry fewer torpedoes and reduce our combat capability. “The probability of us using a torpedo against a warship is much higher than the probability of using a nuclear launched cruise missile,” Kelly stated.

That may be true, but the point of fielding a credible theater nuclear deterrent is to prevent a war with another nuclear-armed power from unfolding in the first place. And if the U.S. finds itself in a high-intensity conflict with China, where each is destroying the other’s ships, it’s even more important that we’re able to deter China from escalating to the nuclear threshold.

Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), meanwhile, wrote a piece advocating that the U.S. “reduce the total number of land-based ICBMs” (intercontinental ballistic missiles) as a means to save money.

Smith is correct that the nuclear modernization program is expensive. It will cost roughly $1.2 trillion over the next 30 years. However, the nuclear modernization program is only a fraction of the total $855 billion defense budget (roughly 7 percent, or $50 billion a year), which is itself only about 13.5 percent of the total federal budget.

Put another way, our nuclear deterrent is less than 0.5 percent of the total federal budget.

Given the deteriorating threat environment and the increasing reliance of Beijing, Moscow, and Pyongyang on their nuclear arsenal, cutting America’s nuclear modernization program is the exact wrong message to send to our allies who rely on America’s nuclear umbrella and to our adversaries whose belief in the credibility of America’s strategic deterrent serves as a brake upon their ambitions and behavior.

If the U.S. doesn’t invest in a credible strategic and tactical nuclear deterrent, it will resign itself to being a secondary nuclear power within 10 years. The only remaining nuclear superpowers — China and Russia — may conclude that the U.S. isn’t a power with which they should engage in strategic dialogue or arms-control discussions.

The question isn’t, “Can we afford a credible nuclear deterrent?” It’s, “Can we afford not to?”

Robert Peters is the Nuclear Deterrence and Missile Defense Fellow at the Heritage Foundation.

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