US nuclear weapons systems threatened by replacements

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Walter Pincus, Senior National Security Columnist, The Cipher Brief

Walter Pincus is a senior national security columnist for The Cipher Brief. He spent forty years at the Washington Post, writing on topics ranging from nuclear weapons to politics.

NOTICE – Last Wednesday, the Government Accountability Office released a declassified version of a once-secret June 2020 report titled: Nuclear Triad: DOD and DOE Face Challenges to Mitigate Risks from U.S. Deterrence Efforts.

Conducted under the Trump administration, the report raised the question of whether the Department of Defense (DOD) replacement programs for today’s strategic nuclear weapons delivery systems [submarines, bombers, ICBMs] “Face scheduling risks that could exacerbate challenges with existing triad systems.”

In addition, the nearly year-old report questioned whether the Department of Energy’s (DOE) nuclear warhead life extension programs, which rely on manufacturing and assembly facilities that are “Obsolete or obsolete” also face timing risks.

As a result, GAO said, “The DOD and DOE have limited ability to mitigate risks to nuclear deterrence effectiveness with their current strategy and are beginning to consider alternatives.”

The GAO said it did the 2020 study because “the DOD reported that due to past delays and issues with aging Triad nuclear systems, there is little or no room to delay systems. replacement without risking nuclear deterrence. Likewise, the DOE faces a demanding schedule for infrastructure projects and warhead and bomb production and life extension programs. “

The report continued, “We have found that every nuclear triad replacement program, including the B-21 [new strategic bomber], LRSO [new long-range, stand-off, air-launched, nuclear cruise missile], GBSD [new Ground Based Strategic Deterrent Intercontinental Missile], and the Columbia-class submarine, and every ongoing bomb and warhead modernization program – faces the prospect of delays due to program-specific and DOD and DOE-wide risk factors. . These risk factors include insufficient manpower for DOD nuclear certification, limited capacity of DOE infrastructure, and supply chain risks. If materialized, these delays would prolong DOD operation of existing Triad systems. “

Two things about this report make it interesting.

It was based on the requirements set by the 2018 Trump Nuclear Posture Review and – as GAO pointed out in the declassified version released last week – the report “does not reflect the effects of these COVID-19 measures on timelines. or the progress of the programs. “

In short, the report showed that the Trump administration was continuing its programs to replace its three major strategic nuclear delivery systems, at costs in the hundreds of billions of dollars, in the face of what GAO called “risk factors that include simultaneity between phases of acquisition programs, from development to production, immature technologies and limited schedule margins. “

I’m writing about the GAO report today because the Biden administration has its own review of the nuclear posture going on, which will re-evaluate Trump’s nuclear programs and perhaps offer the prospect of slowing down the new sub. -Navy Columbia, GBSD ICBM and B-21 systems to reduce certain risks reported by GAO.

Will it harm today’s deterrent effect?

The GAO report notes that much of the concern raised by Trump Pentagon staff was about the ability to generate an additional number of strategic nuclear systems – called force generation – depending on the operational requirements of the US Strategic Command (STRATCOM). in a future crisis. These requirements could very well change under the Biden administration given President Biden’s intention to try to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in national security. Meanwhile, as the GAO report points out, the Navy has apparently already failed to meet STRATCOM’s current force generation needs – having 10 operational and available SSBNs. [strategic ballistic missile submarines] – because current Ohio SSBNs have faced months of unforeseen delays in extended periods of mid-life maintenance, refueling and refit

However, no one has claimed that American deterrence is currently ineffective.


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Meanwhile, President Biden has agreed with Russian President Vladimir Putin to extend the new START (Strategic Arms Treaty) for five years. This extension keeps inspection and verification rules in place and, as Secretary of State Antony Blinken said, “gives us a better insight into Russia’s nuclear posture, including through data sharing and on-site inspections that allow US inspectors to keep an eye on Russian nuclear forces and facilities. “

What exactly are the risks, according to GAO, associated with replacing new delivery systems?

The first, a new Columbia-class strategic submarine, entered production in October 2020, despite the finding that “further development and testing is needed to demonstrate the maturity of several performance-critical technologies,” according to the report. GAO. Further, the GAO described the Columbia Navy’s production plan as “aggressive” noting that it “plans to build the lead submarine over 7 years – or 84 months … during high levels of Cold War submarine production. The average construction time of the first class submarine for the last four classes was approximately 91 months. “

A Congressional Research Service report from February 2021 also raised risks for the Columbia program, citing “the COVID-19 pandemic, technical challenges and / or funding issues – of a delay in the design and construction of the Columbia-class main vessel, which could be endangered. the Navy’s ability to prepare the boat for its first deterrent patrol scheduled for 2031, when it is scheduled to deploy in place of the retired Ohio-class first SSBN.

The GAO report also claims that Pentagon officials called the GBSD’s current schedule “aggressive and compressed compared to previous ICBM programs.” Designed to replace the 400 Minuteman IIIs currently deployed from 2029, the Air Force plans to deliver the first production unit of the GBSD missile as soon as possible and reach initial operational capability during the exercise. 2029.

GAO said delays in the missile program schedule are likely due to several risks starting with the use of “immature technology.” To respond to the first scheduled delivery, the Air Force has developed an acquisition approach that requires the use of mature technologies, but “GBSD program officials recognize in the program’s acquisition strategy that it There is a risk that the program will be delayed if it does not demonstrate a mature design based on mature technologies, ”according to GAO.

Another risk is that “the draft GBSD program development test schedule includes only two months to address the shortcomings found in the flight tests before the next test begins, including the resulting design changes. . GAO said, “Our work on other acquisition programs shows that testing is a process of discovery and that programs need time to incorporate necessary changes and re-test.”

Another risk factor is the time it would take to convert the Minuteman III launch facilities into the configuration needed for the GBSD. Current plans call for an average of 50 conversions per year, slightly more than that number going through the process before the first new ICBM is handed over to the Air Force. As part of current deployments, there are 50 legacy Minuteman III missile-free launch facilities, a reduction undertaken under the new START treaty. The current estimate is that it could take up to six months to restore and convert a launch facility to handle a GBSD missile.

“The Air Force has not yet assessed all of the launch facilities and, therefore, the full scope of work required to prepare the facilities for use by the GBSD program has not yet been determined. If the Air Force does not resolve the issues with the launch facilities before the transition to the GBSD, additional delay may be required for construction, which could lead to delays in commissioning the GBSD ”, according to the GAO report.

Regarding modernization programs for aging US nuclear warheads, GAO previously, in 2019, “found that the next decade is particularly difficult for the DOE’s nuclear modernization efforts, as the agency must guarantee production capacity. sufficient to carry out LEPs. [Life Extension Programs] and modernization programs while carrying out major construction projects and programs to modernize its uranium and plutonium capacities. The GAO report reviews issues related not only to the production of plutonium wells, the triggering devices for thermonuclear weapons, but also the availability of military-grade uranium, tritium, lithium, as well as specialized explosives “which meet the exacting standards required for their use.” in nuclear weapons. “

What is clear from the analysis of last week’s GAO report is that the long-running costly and planned replacement of strategic nuclear delivery systems was already behind the Trump administration’s timeline before the start. of Biden’s presidency. Nonetheless, US nuclear deterrence, in the form of today’s deployed triad of submarines, ICBMs and bombers, remains unchallenged.

It follows, therefore, that the Biden administration’s national security team has some time flexibility to develop its own nuclear weapons policy, link it to arms control approaches, and pursue programs. replacement of the Triad’s delivery systems, although likely at a more responsible pace. and perhaps by calling for smaller numbers.

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