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'Tipping Point' Is Here for Nuclear Modernization, Defense Official Says

Gerald Scroop

September 17, 2020

The Defense Department has long talked about modernization of the nuclear deterrent capability it maintains and operates and has issued warnings about the risks of allowing that deterrent, the nuclear triad, to become too old to effectively perform its mission.

Now, Ellen M. Lord, undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment, said the nuclear enterprise has reached a critical juncture beyond which failure to act will have devastating consequences going into the future.

"Today, we face a stark reality: the long-standing and repeated warnings about the need to modernize and recapitalize the U.S. nuclear deterrent is no longer a warning about the future," Lord said during testimony today on Capitol Hill before the Senate Armed Services Committee. "The tipping point in recapitalization that we have long tried to avoid is here. And we believe the condition of the nuclear enterprise now poses possibly the greatest risk to deterrence."

In a prepared statement to the committee submitted by Lord and Navy Adm. Charles A. Richard, commander of the U.S. Strategic Command, both of whom testified, more details about the state of the U.S. nuclear deterrence were spelled out.

Submarine at sea

"Previous and well-intentioned directive policy changes and de-emphasis of our nuclear deterrent resulted in decades of deferred investments in nuclear warheads, delivery systems, platforms, nuclear command, control, and communications and supporting infrastructure," the statement reads. "Although sustainment efforts have allowed us to maintain a viable nuclear triad and to defer modernization investments for many years, continued delays are no longer an option."

The statement from both of those defense leaders concludes that nearly all of the systems currently a part of the nuclear deterrent are beyond their original service lives and can no longer be cost-effectively maintained to meet future requirements. Additionally, they said, the nuclear weapons production infrastructure used to develop new weapons dates to the 1950s or earlier.

Jet flies over farmland

"The majority of this infrastructure is rated as being in no better than fair condition," the statement reads.

The department is now engaged in a recapitalization of the nuclear triad, which involves new submarines, such as the Columbia-class ballistic missile submarines; new intercontinental ballistic missiles as part of the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent program; and new bomber aircraft, such as the B-21 Raider.

That effort, Lord said, is something the department will need help with.

"DOD has embarked upon the first recapitalization of our triad since the end of the Cold War, and we cannot do it alone," she said.

Airmen stand beside large network devices

Lord cited partnerships between DOD, the Department of Energy and the National Nuclear Security Administration as critical to continued work to rebuild the U.S. nuclear deterrence capability. Also a critical part of that partnership, she said, is the Nuclear Weapons Council, an interagency group made up of both the DOD and the NNSC that oversees sustainment and modernization of nuclear weapons and supporting infrastructure. Lord serves as chairwoman of the NWC.

"On behalf of the NWC, I strongly urge full support for the NNSA's budget request, as well as successful resolution of the language in various FY21 congressional bills that would prevent the NWC from carrying out its statutorily mandated responsibilities," Lord said. "I want to thank this committee for its long standing bipartisan support to our nuclear deterrent mission and the men and women in uniform who are its backbone."

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