Americans don’t often hear much about U.S. nuclear weapons. Despite their historical and continued importance to the strategic defense of our country, the most powerful weapons in the U.S. military arsenal are largely outside of the public view.
As the Department of Defense embarks this year on a Nuclear Posture Review, we must not lose sight of what has changed since the last review in 2010. Potential adversaries are aggressively modernizing and expanding their nuclear forces and capabilities. Some are publicly reminding those watching that their policies and doctrines support their use. So while much has changed since 2010, what has not changed is the need for a strong U.S. nuclear deterrent. We must modernize our aging delivery platforms, nuclear weapons and supporting infrastructure so that America’s deterrent remains credible and effective in the future.
Though it may seem counterintuitive, nuclear weapons are a critical tool of world peace. Since the advent of the nuclear age, the great wars that so ravaged the globe during the first half of the 20th century are no more. Consider that between 65 and 85 million people died in the two world wars of the last century. It is against this backdrop that the United States must ensure that we continue to field effective nuclear deterrent forces.
As the service responsible for two of the three legs of the “nuclear triad,” and approximately 75 percent of the nation’s nuclear command-and-control, the Air Force has a keen interest in assuring that our nuclear-capable bombers, ground-based missiles, command-and-control systems and supporting infrastructure are capable, reliable and secure. These systems have served as a bedrock deterrent of U.S. national security for more than seven decades precisely because prospective enemies know they work and that our nation’s leadership will always make the tough decisions needed to protect and ensure the survival of the American people and our allies.
Although the two Air Force legs of the triad have proven remarkably resilient, they are growing old. Our Minuteman III Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles, or ICBMs, have been around since the 1970s. The infrastructure and support platforms that underpin our ICBMs, such as launch facilities, weapons storage facilities and security helicopters have been in service even longer. Our bomber and air-launched cruise missile forces are decades past their expected lifespans. While we will continue to rely on a portion of our legacy bomber force for decades to come, we must press forward with upgrades to ensure their reliability and effectiveness.
In the face of the aggressive and well-documented modernization efforts of potential adversaries and their increasingly assertive posturing, including overt threats from North Korea, the United States must maintain its commitment to recapitalizing our nuclear forces. History supports the view that our nuclear forces deter large-scale conventional and nuclear attacks from well-armed adversaries and undergird our stability.
Finally, modernization must include investment into technologies that assure the viability of American space assets critical to early warning around the world. Gen. John Hyten, who commands American nuclear forces at U.S. Strategic Command, recently emphasized to Congress that space capabilities are increasingly important to detecting missile launches such as those we’ve recently seen by North Korea.
Investments in our nuclear deterrent represent approximately 5 percent of the overall military budget over the next decade. While not an insignificant bill, history has shown the nation’s outlays supporting our strategic deterrent are well worth the investment, especially when compared to the costs—financial and in lives lost—of world wars that we have not experienced since 1945.
For the better part of 70 years, American airmen have been quietly standing watch alongside our shipmates in the Navy to protect the nation and underwrite strategic stability, under the often harsh conditions and high-stress that come with serving as part of the nuclear forces in our northern tier and under the high seas. Now more than ever, they need our support. By investing in the recapitalization of our nuclear forces, we can provide them with the tools necessary to keep us safe and our allies secure in the decades to come.