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By Tim Morrison

The spectacular recent growth in Russian and Chinese nuclear arms is leading Washington’s think tanks to devote a lot of time these days to the reality of trilateral nuclear arms competition. 

This is not altogether a new and novel concept: the Soviet Union faced a nuclear competition with the United States (which included NATO, the British and French nuclear deterrents, and forward-deployed U.S. nuclear weapons around the world) and the People’s Republic of China. Recall the Soviets and the Communist Chinese almost had a nuclear conflict in the 1960s.1

But this time the shoe is on the other foot, and now it is the U.S. that faces the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China, along with the increasingly likely scenario that Putin and Xi may cooperate at least regarding the timing of intervention against American interests. 

And while there are important debates to be had full of nuance and grand theory about how the United States could deter both Putin and Xi, including simultaneously, there is a more fundamental concern: will our nuclear forces be capable of deterring even one of these hostile regimes? 

Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has lost its seriousness about its nuclear forces, including production and scientific infrastructure, and, at times, has been unsure about whether it even should maintain those forces.2 Only misplaced American self-confidence could allow our nation to believe this situation could go on indefinitely. 

The advances of our adversaries’ nuclear weapons programs have been well-documented in the public debate. During the Trump Administration, in which I served, a serious effort was made to explain to the American people, and their allies, that it was past time to stop thinking about arms control as only a bilateral matter.3 More recently, the China military power reports of the Biden Administration’s Department of Defense have added to the volumes of public information demonstrating why Americans, and their allies, should be increasingly concerned about the investments China and Russia are making in their nuclear forces.4

If you remember nothing else about all these reports, you should take away that our adversaries are capable of building hundreds of new nuclear weapons per year and have, in some cases, multiple programs underway to modernize each component of their nuclear order of battle—beyond merely the commonly thought of triad. 

Then there’s America’s nuclear force: every nuclear weapon in the U.S. arsenal, and every system to deliver those weapons to their assigned targets, is beyond its design life. 

Our Minutemen III ICBMs were fielded in the 1970s. The replacement system is already late (only three years into the program)—which is not surprising as we have not fielded a new ICBM in 50 years.5

Our B52 heavy bomber, which first flew in 1954, will fly into the 2050s and probably beyond; there are some who say that the last mother of the last B52 pilot hasn’t been born yet.6 America’s B2 fleet of heavy bombers (all 19 of them) were on a safety stand-down for five months.7 Our new B21 bomber has been in development since 2009 and has not flown yet, according to press reporting.8

The Columbia class submarine won’t hit the water for six years and it is struggling to retain margin to remain on schedule.9 We may now have to spend money to further extend the life of Ohio-class submarines beyond their 30-year design life and their 42-year extended lifetime.10

By 2035, the same year DOD reported that the Chinese will reach rough numerical parity with U.S. deployed forces, 100% of U.S. nuclear weapons (the warheads and bombs) will have exceeded their design lives by an average of 30 years.11 They will not be 30 years old, they will have exceeded their design life by 30 years. 

The United States has agonized for years about how to sustain its nuclear weapons. During the Bush Administration, the plan was the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW), which would have been a “new” weapon with a “new” design to replace the W-76 submarine-launched warhead.12 Its “newness” was its peril and it was cancelled before the end of the design phase of development to satisfy those who believed the U.S. shouldn’t build “new” nuclear weapons.13

So, instead, the W-76 and other warheads are sustained by a “refurbishment” approach where current parts are swapped out with like-for-like parts—this W-76-1 is planned to be able to exceed the W76’s 20-year design life by 40 years.14

Similarly, the United States is refurbishing the B-61 gravity bomb so that it may remain in service in the extended deterrence mission. Refurbishment in this case involved replacing vacuum tubes…in nuclear weapons.15

These are just the weapons themselves—the production capacity to sustain them is in worse shape. 

The United States invented plutonium in 1941.16 Yet, it has not been able to build a plutonium pit for the nuclear weapons stockpile since 1989, when the Rocky Flats plant was shut down. 

In 2001, the George W. Bush Administration proposed a “responsive infrastructure” as part of its Nuclear Posture Review to restore pit production capacity.17 This “responsive infrastructure” would include the Modern Pit Facility, to be able to build plutonium pits to sustain U.S. nuclear weapons, with at least 125 of them per year (what was then, in the benign geopolitical environment of the early 2000s, thought to be required). 

Ultimately, the Modern Pit Facility died, to be replaced by a new plan to reconstitute a U.S. pit production capability: the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement-Nuclear Facility (CMRR-NF). It was also central to the Senate’s decision to support the New START Treaty, wherein President Obama certified that he would accelerate the construction of this facility to restore pit production.18 The project was terminated by that Administration slightly more than three years after New START was ratified.19

Now, the plan is to split plutonium production between the Los Alamos National Laboratory and the Savannah River Site with a goal of 80 pits per year by 2030. This level of production which has also been a congressional requirement since 2019, and is far lower than was thought necessary in a far more modest threat environment.20 21 

Last year, however, Dr. Jill Hruby (the NNSA Administrator) testified to Congress that “there is no path” to meet this requirement—regardless of how much funding was made available.22 The significance of this statement has not been fully appreciated by policymakers. 

Just consider: General Anthony Cotton, USAF, the current head of U.S. STRATCOM, informed Congress this Spring that “Russia continues to update its warhead production complex and is producing hundreds of warheads each year.”23 Further, he explained that Russia is exporting its Highly Enriched Uranium to the People’s Republic of China for its CFR-600 fast breeder reactors, which produce plutonium.24 Yet, since 2001, the United States—again, the country that invented plutonium—has been struggling to restore the ability to produce this basic nuclear trigger for its weapons despite countless billions spent on decades of studies and failed plan. 

And consider this: in 1951, the Atomic Energy Commission asked Dow Chemical to manage a nuclear weapons production site outside of Denver.25 On July 10, 1951, ground was broken.26 By 1953, plutonium pits were being manufactured and shipped to the Pantex Plant in Amarillo, Texas, for use in America’s growing nuclear weapons stockpile.27

U.S. uranium infrastructure is also woefully out of date, with a uranium fire earlier this year nearly shutting down the one facility where we produce these components for our nuclear weapons.28 In 2014, a 300-pound block of concrete almost fell on a worker at this same facility, which has been in operation since the Manhattan Project.29 Such an accident also surely would have led to a total stand-down in operations at the facility. The capacity for producing other critical capabilities for U.S. nuclear weapons – like lithium and tritium – is similarly at-risk. 

We are at the dawn of a three-way nuclear competition in which the United States is the odd man out. We can’t produce new nuclear weapons currently—nor for the foreseeable future—if required by either strategic or technical circumstances. And the U.S. waited until the last possible minute to replace each-and-every delivery system, and we chose to replace them all at once. To add to the risk we face: Russia is on the verge of destroying the last bilateral nuclear arms control treaty.30

So what near-term options exist to provide the president with additional deterrence options and capabilities, for example, in the event Russia’s suspension of the New START Treaty turns into a full-fledged breakout? 

While the U.S. has a triad when the force is “fully generated”, day-to-day we have a dyad of ICBMs and ballistic missile submarines. The previous Air Force A-10, Lt. Gen. James Dawkins, Jr., warned that attempting to “re-alert” America’s nuclear bombers as a hedge would exhaust the force in roughly six months.31

The U.S. Navy is planning to field an improved Trident D5 missile for the Columbia-class submarine in the coming decades, but for now, would there be sufficient missiles if the decision was made to reload the current Ohio-class boats to respond to a near-term threat or to bridge the transition from Ohio to Columbia?32

Or with GBSD delayed, what options exist for the Air Force to “upload” warheads onto the Minuteman III ICBM during a transition to the new ICBM since the United States has only fielded a single warhead on each missile since 2010? Has an upload capability been preserved? 

The bottom line is: there is reason to be concerned that the U.S. has almost no near-term or mid-term options to respond to Russia’s and China’s rapidly growing nuclear weapons programs. 

Indeed the only real option for near-term deterrence options for the President may be missile defense. 

While Russia and China continue to improve their missile defenses to counter U.S. and allied forces, Americans continue to choose to ignore down-play this tool, including in the most recent missile defense review.33,34,35

We are witnessing the capability of our theater-range missile defense in the Ukraine conflict today.36 It turns out we actually can deploy missile defenses to counter peer rivals. And, of course, Israel has done this for more than a decade. 

Commercial industry launched almost 1,800 satellites last year; one company’s satellite layer consists of well over 3,200 individual space vehicles of about 580 pounds each.37,38 Those who would say it is too hard or too expensive to build space-based missile defense are clearly caught in a Cold War mindset. 

A serious re-think of what the United States can do with its national security and commercial space capabilities to provide effective missile defense of the homeland (against ballistic and hypersonic glide vehicle weapons) may be the nearest-term option to significantly improve our deterrent posture. 

Decline is a choice. The United States does not have to accept that we seem incapable of moving fast these days.

We have just seen a remarkable demonstration of what this country is still capable of when it chooses to be serious: with a large appropriation, military and civilian leaders who had actual authority and political support from the highest level to ignore “peacetime rules” and get things done quickly, the nation went from zero COVID vaccines to four in about six months and quickly surged them into production to beat the virus that escaped from a lab in Wuhan, China. And the world wanted America’s vaccine, not China’s or Russia’s. 

This is the approach to recommend for the next president regarding the nuclear deterrent (and a credible missile defense): invest his or her leadership, obtain the resources, and hold the bureaucracy accountable for putting process ahead of capability. 

There will be a strong temptation to push for a major reorganization of departments and agencies to demonstrate seriousness of purpose; such a move will eventually be necessary. But at this inflection point, the U.S. needs a modernized deterrent to respond to new threats, not new org charts, stationery, and business cards. 

Past stewards of the nation’s nuclear deterrent used to say what worried them the most was having to call the president in the middle of the night to inform him there was a problem with a particular nuclear weapon in the stockpile or deployed force. They knew the president would have asked, “What’s the plan to fix this?” 

The next president-elect should ask for that plan on November 6, 2024. It should be National Security Council Directive 1.

1 Robert Frarley, “Russia and China Could Have Started a Nuclear War in 1969,” National Interest, 11 December 2021. https://nationalinterest.org/blog/reboot/russia-and-china-could-have-started-nuclear-war-1969-197622.
2 George Shultz, William Perry, Henry Kissinger, and Sam Nunn, “A World Free of Nuclear Weapons,” The Wall Street Journal, 4 January 2007. https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB116787515251566636
3 Rebeccah Heinrichs, “Transcript: The Arms Control Landscape ft. DIA Lt. Gen. Robert P. Ashley, Jr.,” Hudson Institute, 31 May 2019. https://www.hudson.org/national-security-defense/transcript-the-arms-control-landscape-ft-dia-lt-gen-robert-p-ashley-jr
4 US Department of Defense, Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China, 29 November 2022. https://media.defense.gov/2022/Nov/29/2003122279/-1/-1/1/2022-MILITARY-AND-SECURITY-DEVELOPMENTS-INVOLVING-THE-PEOPLES-REPUBLIC-OF-CHINA.PDF
5 John Tirpak, “New GAO Report: Strategic Missiles At or Below Cost, But Sentinel Faces Year Delay,” Air and Space Forces Magazine, 9 June 2023. https://www.airandspaceforces.com/new-gao-report-strategic-missiles-sentinel-delay/
6 John Tirpak, “It’s Official: The Re-Engined B-52 Will Be the B-52J,” Air and Space Forces Magazine, 5 April 2023. https://www.airandspaceforces.com/re-engined-b-52-b-52j/
7 Rachel Cohen, “B-2 Stealth Bombers to Return to Flight After 5-Month Delay,” AirForce Times, 19 May 2023. https://www.airforcetimes.com/news/your-air-force/2023/05/19/b-2-stealth-bombers-to-return-to-flight-after-5-month-delay/ 
8 Bradford Betz, “B-21 Raider Stealth Bomber’s First Flight Delayed a Few Months Later than Anticipated: Air Force,” Fox News, 19 March 2023. https://www.foxnews.com/us/b-21-raider-stealth-bombers-first-flight-delayed-few-months-later-anticipated-air-force
9 Caitlin Kenney, “Next Missile Sub ‘Facing Delays’ Due to Design, Materials, and Quality, GAO Says,” Defense One, 26 January 2023. https://www.defenseone.com/threats/2023/01/next-missile-sub-facing-delays-due-design-materials-and-quality-gao-says/382273/
10 Megan Eckstein, “US Navy May Accelerate Investments to Extend Some Ohio Subs’ Lives,” Defense News, 19 May 2023. https://www.defensenews.com/naval/2023/05/19/us-navy-may-accelerate-investments-to-extend-some-ohio-subs-lives/#:~:text=%E2%80%94%20The%20U.S.%20Navy%20may%20begin,operations%20at%20any%20given%20time
11 Acquisition & Sustainment in the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense, “Overview of the U.S. Nuclear Deterrent” in Nuclear Matters Handbook (2020). https://www.acq.osd.mil/ncbdp/nm/NMHB2020rev/chapters/chapter1.html
12 “Reliable Replacement Warhead,” GlobalSecurity.org. https://www.globalsecurity.org/wmd/systems/rrw.htm
13 Scott Miller, “Obama Cuts RRW Program,” Arms Control Association, March 2009. https://www.armscontrol.org/act/2009-03/obama-cuts-rrw-program
14 Bill Murphy, “W76-1 Life Extension Program Milestone a Labs-Wide Accomplishment,” Sandia Lab News Vol. 61, No. 23 (4 December 2009). https://www.sandia.gov/app/uploads/sites/81/2021/07/labnews12-04-09.pdf 
15 Dan Sagalyn, “Photos: What an $8B Nuclear Bomb Upgrade Looks Like,” PBS, 5 November 2015. https://www.pbs.org/newshour/world/8b-nuclear-bomb-upgrade-looks-like
16 Owen Summerscales, “A History of Plutonium,” Los Alamos National Laboratory, 21 September 2022. https://discover.lanl.gov/publications/actinide-research-quarterly/first-quarter-2022/shining-light-on-a-dark-element/
17 John Harvey, “Seeking a Responsive Nuclear Weapons Infrastructure and Stockpile Transformation.” August 11, 2004.
18 Message from President Barack Obama to the Senate of the United States, “President Obama’s Message to the U.S. Senate on the New START Treaty,” U.S. Mission to Geneva, 2 February 2011. https://geneva.usmission.gov/2011/02/02/obama-message-senate-new-start/
19 Scott Amey, “CMRR-NF Canceled, but Questions Linger,” Project On Government Oversight, 20 November 2014, https://www.pogo.org/analysis/2014/11/cmrr-nf-cancelled-but-questions-linger.

20 “Pit Production Explained,” Los Alamos National Laboratory, 13 December 2021, https://discover.lanl.gov/publications/national-security-science/2021-winter/pit-production-explained/
21 “50 USC 2538a: Plutonium Pit Production Capacity from Title 50-WAR AND NATIONAL DEFENSE CHAPTER 42-ATOMIC ENERGY DEFENSE PROVISIONS SUBCHAPTER II-NUCLEAR WEAPONS STOCKPILE MATTERS Part A-Stockpile Stewardship and Weapons Production,”US House Codes, 13 August 2023, https://uscode.house.gov/view.xhtml?req=granuleid%3AUSC-prelim-title50-section2538a&num=0&edition=prelim
22 Open/Closed: To Receive Testimony on the Department of Energy and National Nuclear Security Administration on Atomic Energy Defense Activities in Review of the Defense Authorization Request for Fiscal Year 2023 and the Future Years Defense Program, U.S. Senate Committee on Armed Services, 19 May 2022, https://www.armed-services.senate.gov/hearings/to-receive-testimony-on-the-department-of-energy-and-national-nuclear-security-administration-on-atomic-energy-defense-activities-in-review-of-the-defense-authorization-request-for-fiscal-year-2023-and-the-future-years-defense-program
23 FY24 Strategic Forces Posture, Before the House Armed Services Committee Subcommittee on Strategic Forces, 118th Congress (Statement of General Anthony Cotton, Commander, US Strategic Command), in response to Question for the Record #3, 8 March 2023, https://armedservices.house.gov/hearings/strategic-forces-subcommittee-hearing-fy24-strategic-forces-posture.
24 Ibid. 
25 Rocky Flats History Book Rev2 - Department of Energy, July 2003. https://www.energy.gov/lm/articles/rocky-flats-site-colorado-history-documents
26 Ibid.
27 Ibid.
28 Hope McAlee, “Cause of Uranium Fire at Y-12 in Oak Ridge Revealed,” WATE News, 24 March 2023. https://www.wate.com/news/local-news/cause-of-uranium-fire-at-y-12-in-oak-ridge-revealed/
29 “Nuclear Weapons: Actions Needed to Improve Management of NNSA’s Lithium Activities,” US Government Accountability Office, 12 August 2021. https://www.gao.gov/products/gao-21-244
30 Matthew Lee, “US Retaliated for Russia’s Suspension of New START Treaty by Revoking Visas of Nuclear Inspectors,” AP News, 2 June 2023.  https://apnews.com/article/us-russia-new-start-nuclear-16285354fcdc4f6a8ef18367620707e3
31 Oriana Pawlyk, “Putting Nuclear Bombers Back on 24-Hour Alert Would Exhaust the Force, General Says,” Military.com, 22 April 2021. https://www.military.com/daily-news/2021/04/22/putting-nuclear-bombers-back-24-hour-alert-would-exhaust-force-general-says.html
32 Megan Eckstein, “US Navy Wants to Avoid Shortfall of Nuke Armed Subs in 2030s,” DefenseNews, 2 November 2022. https://www.defensenews.com/naval/2022/11/02/us-navy-wants-to-avoid-shortfall-of-nuke-armed-subs-in-2030s/ 
33 “Current Russian and U.S. Ballistic Missile Defense Systems,” in Regional Ballistic Missile Defense in the Context of Strategic Stability, (National Academy of Sciences, 2021). https://nap.nationalacademies.org/read/24964/chapter/5 
34 Associated Press, “China Says it Conducted Mid-Course Missile Interception Test,” MilitaryTimes, 16 April 2023. https://www.militarytimes.com/flashpoints/china/2023/04/16/china-says-it-conducted-mid-course-missile-interception-test/ 
35 “Department of Defense Releases its 2022 Strategic Reviews - National Defense Strategy, Nuclear Posture Review, and Missile Defense Review,” Department of Defense, 27 October 2022. https://www.defense.gov/News/Releases/Release/Article/3201683/department-of-defense-releases-its-2022-strategic-reviews-national-defense-stra/
36 Sebastien Roblin, “For the First Time, a Patriot Missile Has Killed One of Russia’s Hypersonic Missiles,” Popular Mechanics, 8 May 2023. https://www.popularmechanics.com/military/weapons/a43806773/patriot-missile-kills-russia-hypersonic-kinzhal-missile/
37 “Commercial Satellite Industry Growing as It Continues to Dominate Expanding Global Space Business -- SIA Releases 25th Annual State of the Satellite Industry Report,” SIA, 29 June 2022. https://sia.org/commercial-satellite-industry-growing-as-it-continues-to-dominate-expanding-global-space-business-sia-releases-25th-annual-state-of-the-satellite-industry-report/
38 Tereza Pultarova and Elizabeth Howell, “Starlink Satellites: Everything You Need to Know About the Controversial Internet Megaconstellation,” Space.com, 2 August 2023. https://www.space.com/spacex-starlink-satellites.html