2 May 2017
WASHINGTON — America’s strategic deterrent forces have prevented a catastrophic global war for 70 years, but may have been “too successful” in that mission, the deputy commander of the U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM) said May 2.
“Nuclear attack is still the most consequential threat this nation faces,” Vice Adm. Charles A. Richard said. But because the strategic deterrent capabilities have prevented a nuclear conflict since World War II, “we have removed that threat from the psyche of the American people.”
That condition is reflected, Richard indicated, in the current debate over whether the nation can afford the expensive, decade-long program to modernize the nuclear deterrent Triad of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICMBs), nuclear-capable bombers and the Navy’s ballistic-missile submarines (SSBNs).
In a breakfast address to a Mitchell Institute forum, Richard noted that the Pentagon had recently announced the start of a new nuclear policy review.
“It’s not a moment too soon. We have spent a long time de-emphasizing nuclear deterrence while our
adversaries have advanced,” he said, noting the new nuclear-armed missiles and ballistic-missile submarines Russia has fielded. “I could provide a similar list for China,” he added. “This is the new competition we’re in.
“The United States faces strategic competitors who are well advanced, and in some case ahead,” he said.
In order for the strategic deterrent force to remain effective, “we have to stay ahead. The [Defense] Department believes the nuclear Triad is the best way to maintain that advantage,” Richard said.
The admiral noted that Air Force Gen. John E. Hyten, head of Strategic Command, told Congress last month that he could not tell them which leg of the Triad was the most vital to modernize. The ICBMs are the most responsive, the bombers the most flexible and the Ohio-class ballistic-missile submarines the least vulnerable.
Under the current modernization schedule, “each leg delivers just in time. We’ve taken out all the margin,” Richard said. “The modernization program will provide the strategic deterrence we need, but only if delivered on time.”
Keeping on the schedule is particularly crucial for producing the new Columbia-class SSBNs that are to replace the Ohio-class subs, Richard said.
That is because the Ohios were designed to last 30 years, but have had their service lives extended to 42 years.
“We have never taken any submarine beyond 37 years,” Richard, a career submariner, said.
If the Ohio subs were pushed beyond 42 years of service, the hulls might not be able to stand the underwater pressure and could not conduct their deterrence missions, he said.
Asked about the future of the Trident D-5 missiles that arm the Ohio subs, Richard said they are being updated and the modernized missiles will carry over to the Columbia-class boats.
However, he said, “nothing lasts forever,” and the Navy is working with the Air Force to find common components from the planned replacement for the Minuteman III ICBMs that might go into a future Trident replacement.
In addition to modernizing the weapons in the Triad, Richard said they had to update the strategic command and control system, which is full of 1960s technology.
“Nuclear deterrence is only as good as its command and control.”
Addressing the complaints about the cost of modernizing the Triad, and the nuclear warheads it uses, Richard said the program is estimated to require only six and a half percent annually of the total defense budget, which is “a fraction” of the total federal budget.
That spending, “against our only existential threat, is a very good investment,” he said.