By: Cassandra Peterson
Last Wednesday’s Senate Armed Services Subcommittee Hearing on the Future Nuclear Posture of the United States was dominated by discussions of nuclear modernization and Russian saber-rattling. It appeared to be a forgone conclusion that the United States’ existing nuclear infrastructure isn’t good enough.
Witness testimonial was given by Dr. John R. Harvey, the Honorable Franklin C. Miller, Dr. Keith B. Payne, and Dr. Brad H. Roberts. They delivered monologues on their positions regarding the efficacy of the United States’ deterrence structure, much of which centered on modernization, a catchy term used for the update and replacement of every weapon in every leg of the United States’ nuclear triad to the tune of up to one trillion dollars. Some aspects of this process are necessary, as certain components of nuclear weapons have peacefully eroded for decades, creating concerns about safety and effectiveness. In other cases, modernization can be incredibly impractical and expensive.
One controversial contender for modernization is the Long Range Standoff (LRSO) weapon, a new nuclear cruise missile. The Air Force plans to build more than 1,000 LRSO units, completely disregarding existing air-launched cruise missiles, which won’t be defunct for more than a decade. Former Secretary of Defense, William Perry, actively advocated for the LRSO’s predecessor. Now, he has openly asserted that the LRSO will have a destabilizing effect on national security. This is due to the dual-use nature of the weapon, which is able to house both conventional and nuclear arms. The consequent potential for accidental escalation is large.
Perhaps this is why the senators present at the hearing were uncertain if the LRSO is even necessary for credible deterrence, or if its absence will effectively amputate the nuclear triad. It won’t, but the appeal of a fancy new toy wasn’t lost on anyone in the room.
Special guest, Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR), took modernization one step further, asking whether the U.S. needed to reconsider its stance on developing new nuclear warheads. Setting aside the part where this would violate numerous U.S. commitments to reduce the number of existing warheads, the idea would cost more than any potential gains. With defense spending already spread thin and the minimal risk of an impending nuclear war, Cotton’s consideration is completely nonsensical.
The Russian motto of “escalating to deescalate”, or threatening tactical nuclear use to convince the United States to stand down, drove much of the conversation. Tactical nukes are traditionally defined as lower yield nuclear weapons meant for a battlefield. The big problem therein is that conventional arms provide a cheaper, more controllable, more humane alternative, which is why many countries are skeptical about their development.
Last June, Deputy Defense Secretary, Robert Work, noted, “Anyone who thinks that they can control escalation through the use of nuclear weapons is literally playing with fire.” That might be, but the Russian threat was clearly terrorizing Senators Sessions (R-AL) and Fischer (R-NE). Both questioned the probability of Russian tactical nuke use and whether the United States requires the ability to counter it.
The best advice on that front came from Dr. Roberts, who maintained that nuclear use, no matter the yield, escalates a conflict. There is no point in trying to match President Putin’s attempts to lower the bar on the nuclear threshold, because if he does use a nuclear weapon, that is tantamount to nuclear war. The United States is already equipped and more than adequately ready to match such a scenario.
This compilation of senatorial concerns demonstrates that the successors of the Obama administration will have their hands full when it comes to the next Nuclear Posture Review. Costly modernization is pitted against the maintenance of credible deterrence infrastructure, and there appeared to be confusion on whether the United States can actually match other countries in the event of a nuclear war. Notably, not a single senator discussed reducing the nuclear arsenal, but at this point, that wasn’t even a surprise.