Entangled America: Why Another International Nuclear Arms Race Has Begun

August 22, 2021 Topic: Nuclear Region: Americas Tags: NuclearAgreementsTreatyRussiaVladimir Putin

Entangled America: Why Another International Nuclear Arms Race Has Begun

Washington’s ability to “hedge” against a collapse of the nuclear treaties supporting the reduction of weapons in Russia and other countries is disappearing.

In either case, the cost of extending Minuteman is reported as some $38 billion more expensive than the GBSD alternative, particularly given the lack of vendors for the Minuteman late-1960s technology. In any case, Air Force Chief of Staff General Brown pushed back and called for going forward with the GBSD without delay.

At least a dozen previous studies have all concluded that the right way to go is with the new GBSD. It is cheaper. It is vastly more technically viable and meets Strategic Command deterrent requirements, which the Minuteman will not. Also, it will be significantly less expensive to sustain.

But there is an additional big strategic challenge: the hedge. Smith has admitted GBSD is $38 billion cheaper. Why then would it be necessary to go forward with the GBSD intercontinental ballistic missile program of record? As many disarmament groups have proposed, the United States could just keep submarines and bombers.

The assumption is that if it did that, then the Minuteman’s four hundred warheads could, if necessary, be added to the submarines. But that’s assuming that sufficient D-5 warheads are available in the U.S. stockpile. The SLBM force now has 1090 warheads and could indeed build up and deploy all the 1490 missile warheads allowed by the New START Treaty if the United States continues to deploy 60 countable strategic bombers.   

But the United States’ “hedge” disappears if the intercontinental ballistic missiles are eliminated. The D-5/2 missile is being redone but holds a maximum of eight warheads per missile. That means the total U.S. submarine force could deploy 1536 warheads while the U.S. Navy is building the new Columbia-class submarine, which can hold sixteen missiles. That 1536 total is just a fraction above the 1490 that the United States has deployed under the New START Treaty. Yet it is multiple thousands less than what Russia can deploy if they broke out of the New START Treaty. Alongside China, America’s two nuclear-armed enemies would have combined strategic nuclear warheads some 600 percent greater than the United States. If compared by the number of nuclear weapons that are on alert on a day-to-day basis, the imbalance reaches on the order of 1,000 percent.   

Alternatively, the United States could trust the Russians to remain committed to the New START Treaty and the Chinese to suddenly abandon their sprint to nuclear superiority. That is now a critical choice that the country now faces.

Peter Huessy is president of Geo-Strategic Analysis of Potomac, Maryland. 

 Image: Reuters