Airmen ready a Minuteman III ICBM at Vandenberg Air Force Base for test firing. (Photo: U.S. Dept of Defense / Air Force Staff Sgt. Jonathan Snyder)

“Every man, woman and child lives under a nuclear sword of Damocles, hanging by the slenderest of threads, capable of being cut at any moment by accident or miscalculation or by madness. The weapons of war must be abolished before they abolish us.”
— President John F. Kennedy, at the Assembly of the United Nations in 1961

“I’d love for the day that I could report we don’t need a US Strategic Command,” said US Navy Adm. Charles A. Richard, the commander of STRATCOM.

Odd words, coming from the man in charge of the largest nuclear weapons force in the world, who told a virtual seminar at the Brookings Institute this week that he would rather see political agreements achieved with verification.

“Strategic deterrence is the most important mission in the Department of Defense. It’s our number one priority,” said Richard, pointing out that for the first time in history, the US faces two nuclear capable strategic peer competitors at the same time.

Richard said he’d love to see a reduced role of nuclear weapons by the US, Russia and China and would like to extend them an olive branch.

A good starting point on the path to reduction, he said, would be to have a conversation with Russia about its non-treaty accountable weapons. Conversations with China would be tremendously beneficial as well.

“One thing you can say about the US and Russia — even all the way through the Cold War, as tense as that was at certain points — is that we talked all the way through and there was great value in that,” he said, adding that having open communications can certainly bring the threat level down to everyone’s mutual benefit.

A B-52H Stratofortress bomber from Barksdale Air Force Base, La., sits on the runway at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, in support of a U.S. Strategic Command bomber task force. Credit: Photo By: Air Force Senior Airman Jovante Johnson.

In the meantime, STRATCOM works diligently to achieve a credible nuclear deterrent that is safe, secure and effective, he said, adding that nuclear deterrence is not just about protecting the US, it’s also about protecting allies.

It achieves this through the deployment of a set of strategic capabilities, including nuclear ballistic missile submarines, long range bombers such as the B-1 and B-2, and intercontinental ballistic missiles.

China, he added, is a growing threat — their strategic and conventional forces are rapidly expanding in all domains.

They now have the biggest naval fleet in the world, and it’s growing bigger by the day.

And since Xi Jinping took power in 2013, China has become more aggressive at home and abroad, and especially into the disputed waters of the South China Sea, a potential flashpoint for a future conflict.

Russia is undergoing a very extensive nuclear modernization program as well, he added.

And because of these growing threats from China and Russia, modernizing America’s nuclear weapons arsenal is of paramount importance, he said.

Richard also highlighted the importance he places on having a highly skilled and motivated workforce to operate and maintain the traditional Nuclear Triad of Land, Sea and Air defenses.

These would include scientists, software developers, engineers and technologists.

Richard told Washington lawmakers last month that China is capable of accurately deploying nuclear weapons anywhere within its region, and it “will soon be able to do so at intercontinental range,” Stars & Stripes reported.

“I can’t get through a week right now, without finding out something we didn’t know about China,” Richard told senators in a hearing alongside Army Gen. James Dickinson, who leads US Space Command.

The USS Tennessee reportedly was the first U.S. Navy submarine deployed with a small nuclear warhead aboard. (Photo: U.S. Navy / Navy Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class James Kimber)

Dickinson also fingered China as among his top military concerns, as it rapidly advances its space-based military capabilities.

In a stark warning, Richard told lawmakers that he had seen indications China had moved at least some of its nuclear forces from a peace-time status to a so-called “launch-on-warning” and “high-alert” posture, in which weapons are armed for launch as soon as an incoming enemy missile is detected.

Yet, even as China’s nuclear weapons arsenal has grown dramatically, Russia — led by an unpredictable and aggressive leader in President Putin — remains the primary nuclear threat for the United States, Richard said.

China has an estimated 320 warheads, compared to the 5,800 held by the US and 6,375 held by Russia.

And while the US has yet to field any recent updates to its nuclear forces pending a White House review, Russia is about 80% complete in modernizing its nuclear capabilities, the admiral said.

“While we are at 0% [modernization], it is easier to describe what they’re [Russia] not modernizing — nothing,” he said. “What they are [upgrading] is pretty much everything, including several never-before-seen capabilities.”

Richard said he supported the ongoing nuclear strategic review of the Biden administration, but he cautioned against some lawmakers’ recent targeting of the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent, the planned US$95 billion replacement for the military’s 1970s-era Minuteman III ICBMs, as a potential cut to save money.

Unfortunately, the nation has treated its nuclear force the same way it has treated its infrastructure: Both are falling apart.

An unarmed Minuteman III ICBM, one of the three legs of the U.S. nuclear triad, being tested off California last year. (Photo: U.S. Dept of Defense / Air Force Senior Airman Clayton Wear)

According to a report in Pogo.org, after decades of kicking the warheads down the road, the Pentagon wants to rebuild all three legs of the Nuclear Triad simultaneously. It plans on spending up to US$140 billion for a new crop of ICBMs, nearly US$100 billion for B-21 bombers, and US$128 billion for new submarines.

The cost of buying and operating these weapons: Nearly US$1.7 trillion through 2046, according to the independent Arms Control Association.

President Biden could take a step back from the abyss by scrapping one leg of the nuclear triad. There is consensus that the land-based ICBMs are the weakest leg of the triad, and one that can safely be lopped off. 

But, consider this … America’s ICBM silos are sitting ducks for enemy attack.

But that’s their purpose: They serve as a “nuclear sponge” designed to force the enemy (Russia or China) to destroy them in the opening volley of a nuclear war.

It also would force the attacking state (Russia or China) to waste precious warheads across the vast expanse of the American High Plains instead of raining them down on more critical military targets or on heavily populated cities.

This is the strange calculus of nuclear deterrence, which is rooted in a bizarre war game no one hopes ever plays out.

Sources: David Vergun at the US Department of Defense, Stars & Stripes and Pogo.org