The Biden Administration is expected to release its Nuclear Posture Review early this year. The review likely will include decisions affecting the size and composition of the U.S. nuclear deterrent force. Under the two previous administrations, the United States has pursued multiple programs to modernize all three legs of the Triad of nuclear-capable bomber aircraft, intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), and nuclear-powered submarines armed with submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs). These nuclear modernization programs have enjoyed broad, bipartisan support over the past decade. Nevertheless, some members of Congress have expressed reservations about the initiatives’ cost and necessity.
A new RAND paper by Frank Klotz and Alexandra Evans describes the choices that have shaped the U.S. nuclear force posture in the past, the major questions and disagreements informing the current debate over nuclear modernization, and the significance of the decisions that will be made over the next several months.
Because much of the debate on modernization is focused on the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD), which is slated to replace the aging Minuteman III ICBMs, special attention is devoted to actions regarding the ICBM force taken since the end of the Cold War, including the 2014 decision to develop a new land-based missile system. The paper then identifies and explains the principal arguments publicly advanced for proceeding with or suspending the GBSD program.
As long as the Biden administration and the Congress decide to keep the GBSD program on track, senior Air Force leaders will no doubt be expected to defend the decision in their public statements and congressional testimony. They, therefore, should be prepared to explain both why nuclear deterrence remains a core service mission, and why the Triad and a new ICBM are essential to maintaining a safe, secure, and effective nuclear deterrent force.
The Air Force could benefit from being more forthcoming in publicly describing the new capabilities that GBSD is expected to provide, both operationally and in terms of sustaining day-to-day operations over the long term. Similarly, a more transparent discussion of the cost analysis that informed the decision to replace rather than again extend the service life of Minuteman III could address concerns expressed by both advocates and critics of the GBSD program.
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