Kicking the Nuclear Can: Dealing with the Modernization Challenge

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

By Kyle Deming, Columnist

The long-term effectiveness of the US nuclear arsenal and its place in national security strategy is a far cry from the top tier of highly contested issues in the 2016 American presidential election. The next commander-in-chief will be responsible for critically important decisions about the force structure and role of the US nuclear arsenal. To this end, the new president will likely conduct his or her own Nuclear Posture Review and establish new goals for arms control. These choices on how to proceed with nuclear recapitalization, and which nuclear programs to prioritize over others, will constrain future administrations decades into the future. Admiral Cecil Haney, commander of United States Strategic Command, noted that the nuclear enterprise is up against a ‘brick wall,’ the result of postponing modernization until the last possible moment. [i]

The budget implications of nuclear modernization are substantial. Upgrading the arsenal is projected to cost somewhere around $384 billion in the next decade and $700 billion to $1 trillion over the next 30 years. [ii] Notably, the requirements for replacing certain parts of the arsenal are hitting at the same time in a “bow wave” that threatens to crowd out other components of the defense budget. [iii] In its FY2017 budget, the Obama administration has proposed funding replacements for the Ohio-class nuclear submarine and the Minuteman-III ICBM, as well as the next long-range strike bomber (recently christened the B-21) and a new air-launched nuclear-tipped cruise missile (ALCM). Successfully achieving all of these priorities at once in the current fiscal environment represents a near impossibility. [iv]

In spite of these realities, the 2016 presidential candidates have been relatively vague about their plans for strategic modernization. Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz have noted their particular support for the SSBN replacement and a new bomber sufficient to justify the retirement of the B-52. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, has expressed some skepticism about the cost viability of the administration’s recapitalization plans, although she has said relatively little on the subject beyond one statement in Iowa. [v] The most extensive exchange over nuclear modernization in the debate season so far featured Donald Trump’s bemused assertion of his belief in the “power and devastation” of the nuclear arsenal.

Of course, the correlation between a candidate’s positions on the campaign trail and his or her actual behavior in office, especially on nuclear issues, may be minimal. President Obama spoke ambitiously during his campaign about creating conditions for a world without nuclear weapons; to the dismay of disarmament activists, however, by 2016 he supported robust funding for nuclear modernization. Part of this phenomenon is, perhaps unsurprisingly, that nuclear weapons do not hold much salience for voters. Foreign policy as a whole rarely shapes voting decisions and public facing nuclear policy in particular is subject to broad assertions of competence rather than strategic planning; references to the “finger on the nuclear button” are extraordinarily common. This hardly excuses a stale and underdeveloped debate on an issue that will dominate defense resource allocation from the beginning of the next president’s term.

Making a clear roadmap for a nuclear future should represent a priority for incoming and potential administrations. This likely requires recognizing that tradeoffs between programs will require delaying or cancelling certain elements of triad modernization and that nuclear spending may even require reducing expenditures on conventional capabilities. Likewise, modernization means harmonizing deterrence requirements with force structure; if nuclear war fighting is unlikely to be a prominent feature of expected future conflicts, the ALCM is an easy target for cost cutting. [vi] Most of all, delineating clear nuclear policy requires simple engagement with the facts: nuclear weapons are not going away any time soon and responsibly managing a safe and effective nuclear deterrent cannot and should not be improvised.

[i] Robert Burns, “Nuke chief: running out of time to begin updating nukes” The Associated Press, February 27, 2016,

[ii] Aaron Mehta, “Pentagon Protects Nuclear Modernization Programs in FY17 Budget” Defense News, February 10, 2016,

[iii] Lawrence Korb and Adam Mount, “Setting Priorities for Nuclear Modernization” Center for American Progress, February 3, 2016,

[iv] Aaron Mehta, “Is the Pentagon’s Budget About To Be Nuked?” Defense News, February 5, 2016,

[v] Jake Meixler, “The 2016 Presidential Candidates on Nuclear Issues” Nukes of Hazard, Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation, February 19, 2016,

[vi] Tom Nichols, “The 1980s Called. They Don’t Need Their Cruise Missiles Back.” The National Interest, November 3, 2015,’t-need-their-cruise-missiles-back-14236.

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