Torn between an entrenched defense establishment and progressive lawmakers, domestic partisan debate could see a third of US land-based nuclear defence capability slashed to fund pandemic relief.

The US federal budget process is just beginning, but Democrats and Republicans are already in an impasse over whether to reduce or continue increasing spending on a costly ground-based nuclear defense system modernisation.

On March 26, two Democratic lawmakers introduced the Investing in Cures Before Missiles Act, which would use the ‘Ground-based Strategic Deterrent” program to fund Covid-19 relief.

If the bill passes, the US government will be prevented from using any of its 2022 budget on the modernisation program.

Nuclear weapons policy makers take the aging missile fleet very seriously. Much of the technology used is in US missile silos. Their rationale is: old is not bad if it’s dependable and it works. However, they also argue for the need to keep up with nuclear adversaries. 

For that reason, US Strategic Command only introduced automated electronic systems to missile silos in 2019, phasing floppy disks out permanently by 2010.

But at the high-stakes level of nuclear defense strategy, the bottom line is that no one survives nuclear war unscathed. In a chilling tweet that caused dread among Twitter users, US Strategic Command warned that nuclear war may actually be the least best option in an unpredictable future. 

Partisan entrenchment

Resistance to further expensive Pentagon spending comes after years of defence budget overruns that continue to invest billions into underperforming military hardware, including the F-35 stealth fighter jet, the Patriot missile system, next-generation Littoral Combat Ship and the Ford class supercarriers.

The White House is leading a defense posture review that will assess costs for modernising the United State’s nuclear program. 

Referred to as a ‘Nuclear Triad’, the triple-headed structure provides nuclear readiness through nuclear-armed submarines, strategic bombers, and land-launched nuclear missiles. Estimated costs for nuclear triad modernisation is projected at $1.7 trillion over a period of thirty years.

Conservative lawmakers have reacted strongly against any move to cut spending.

“We shouldn’t be conducting [a review] to pause nuclear modernization. That should not happen,” said Senator Deb Fischer, ranking Republican on the Senate Strategic Forces Subcommittee. 

“Modernization already is just-in-time, if not late-to-need, and so we don’t have the luxury of pausing or delaying these important programs... If you prioritize something, that’s the first thing you fund,” she said. “Nuclear modernization is not cheap, but it’s necessary.”

Democrats who have taken issue with the exorbitant costs of nuclear modernisation, say that even if Beijing doubles its nuclear arsenal, the United States will still have more nuclear missiles than it does, and therefore maintain its strategic deterrent.

Others ask if it's possible to achieve a necessary level of deterrence, without spending as much.

At the heart of it all is an aging Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile, designed to only be used for 10 years. Because of the age of some of the systems being used, caution is a rule in nuclear defense, particularly given the Cold War era intercontinental ballistic missile was first produced in the 1970’s. More pressingly, developing a replacement takes a lot of time.

Rising adversaries

In July 2016, the US Air Force Nuclear Weapons center requested the modernisation of existing nuclear defense systems. Under the Trump administration, Northrop Grumman received a $13.3 billion contract to develop an upgraded version of the Cold War nuclear technology. 

For other nuclear adversaries, nuclear modernisation is less of a pressing issue. China’s nuclear arsenal already underwent modernisation in the late 1980’s, and continues to evolve steadily. 

Russia on the other hand, seems less concerned with its aging fleet of missiles, but has publicly showcased even stronger nuclear bombs like the Sarmat, also known as Satan 2, which will enter service in 2021. With an 18,000 kilometer range, the missile is also 400 times stronger than either of the primitive nuclear devices dropped on Japan in 1945.

While the advanced nuclear weapons increase Russia’s nuclear deterrent, it has done little to modernise it’s Dead Hand system, also known as Perimeter.

The aging system assures mutual destruction, and by the logic of nuclear strategy, provides a deterrent to anyone willing to engage in nuclear war with Russia. 

At its heart, nuclear strategy assumes there are no winners. By pouring resources into the ability to strike first, and to strike back even after a surprise attack; nuclear states are able to maintain a balance of power where to begin a conflict, ensuring your destruction. 

The Dead Hand system, as its name suggests, uses a ‘fail-deadly’ method, where a single attack will automatically be met with overwhelming nuclear force, thereby encouraging peace. The system has authority from the highest echelons of the Russian General Staff to order a launch if a nuclear attack is detected by multiple sensors. The sensors measure light, pressure, radioactivity and seismic activity. 

The system is allegedly turned off unless a state of high alert is declared, but this has never been independently verified. Instead, Russia has focused on creating what it now claims is an invincible nuclear missile that will eventually form 100 percent of Russia’s land based strategic missiles.

To achieve this, the ICBM cone breaks open while the missile is travelling well over 24,000 km per hour, before sending multiple nuclear warheads to different locations.

Recent technology to counter this includes hypersonic missiles. To neutralise this, the Satan 2 uses advanced countermeasures including dozens of warhead decoys. Over time, defending against nuclear attack continues to grow more difficult, particularly with the rise of better stealth and cooling technology. 

Future plans

To modernise its nuclear arsenal, the Ground-based Strategic Deterrent will replace over 400 Minuteman III ICBM’s. Irrespective of budget concerns, the US needs to replace the missiles by the end of the decade or face a severely degraded nuclear edge. 

Nuclear strategy dictates that land-based missiles play the largest role in forming a deterrent, while other options like nuclear-armed submarines are effective in ensuring a second-strike capability if worse comes to worse.

For the US Department of Defense, it’s a no brainer. It’s cheaper to develop a new workhorse nuclear missile, than modernise the Minuteman III. 

The messy debate is exacerbated by China’s rapidly growing nuclear capabilities. To emphasise how fast China was moving, Admiral Charles Richard, commander of US Strategic Command, warned the Senate Armed Services Committee that any briefs on China’s nuclear posture had to be vetted on a monthly basis “because it’s probably out of date.”

“I can't get through a week right now, without finding out something we didn't know about China,” Admiral Richard told senators. Also present at the hearing was US Army General James Dickinson, commander of US Space Command. Dickinson also warned that China was one of his highest military concerns, and emphasised its rapid development of space-based military capabilities.

Russia remains the primary threat to the United States, according to Richard. He also warned that while the US was at “0 percent” modernisation, “Russia is about 80 percent complete.”

While the fraught scene is lacking the wheelchaired Dr. Strangelove, the satirical Stanley Kubrick Cold War movie still resonates today: no matter how complex war and defense gets, there are no winners, and only losers.