Strategic Policy Commission Report Calls for Enhancing US Nuclear Capabilities
On October 12, the Strategic Policy Commission released its long-awaited report on US nuclear policy and strategic stability. The 12-member commission was chosen by Congress in 2022 to conduct threat assessments, review changes in the U.S. posture of forces and make recommendations.
Unlike the Biden administration's Nuclear Posture Review, the Strategic Policy Commission report approved by Congress represents a blanket endorsement of the U.S. nuclear buildup.
It includes recommendations for the United States to prepare for an increase in the number of deployed warheads, as well as an increase in the production of bombers, air-launched cruise missiles, ballistic missile submarines, non-strategic nuclear forces and warhead production capabilities. It also calls on the United States to place multiple independently targetable warheads on land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and to consider adding mobile intercontinental ballistic missiles to its arsenal.
The only thing that seemed to prevent the commission from recommending an immediate increase in nuclear stockpiles weapons The US is something that the weapons complex currently does not have the capacity to do.
The commission's support for a US nuclear buildup ignores the consequences of a likely arms race with Russia and China (in fact, the commission does not even consider it or propose steps other than a buildup to try to solve this problem). If the United States responds to China's force buildup by increasing its own deployed warheads and launchers, Russia will likely respond by increasing its own deployed warheads and launchers. This will increase the nuclear threat to the United States and its allies.
China, which has already decided that it needs more nuclear weapons to counter the current level of US forces, may well respond to a stronger US by increasing its own arsenal even further. This would put the United States back where it started - feeling insecure and facing an increased nuclear threat.
The commission's report as a whole is based on the prospects for strategic military cooperation between Russia and China against the United States. The commission cautions against “dismissing the possibility of opportunistic or simultaneous aggression by two sides because it may seem unlikely,” and notes that “not incorporating this issue into U.S. strategy and strategic posture may have the perverse effect of making such aggression more likely.” However, the Commission does not recognize that creating new capabilities to address this very remote possibility would likely lead to an even greater acceleration of the arms race.
The report acknowledges that Russia and China are in the process of large-scale modernization programs and, in China's case, a significant increase in their nuclear arsenals. However, the report's authors suggest that these changes fundamentally challenge the assured US capability to retaliate and state that "the current US strategic posture will be insufficient to achieve the objectives of US defense strategy in the future."
The commission appears to base this conclusion, as well as its recommendations on nuclear strategy and force structure, solely on a numerical approach to counterforce thinking: if China strengthens its position by deploying more weapons, that automatically means that the United States needs more weapons to "shoot at more targets...” However, the survivability of US ballistic missile submarines should prevent the United States from having to engage in this kind of thinking.
In 2012, a joint U.S. Department of Defense and National Intelligence report acknowledged that because of U.S. submarine forces, Russia would be unable to achieve any military advantage over the United States by significantly increasing the size of its deployed nuclear forces. In that 2012 study, both agencies concluded that “the Russian Federation... would not be able to achieve a significant military advantage through any plausible expansion of its strategic nuclear forces, even in a deception or breach scenario under the New START Treaty, before all because of the inherent survivability of the planned U.S. strategic force structure, especially the Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines, many of which are at sea at any given time.”
Why doesn't this logic apply to China? While China's nuclear arsenal is undoubtedly growing, this fundamentally changes the nature of the United States' assured response capability while the United States is uncertain about the survivability of its SSBNs.
In this context, it is worth repeating the words of Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin at the change of command ceremony of the US Strategic Command:
While the report said the commission "avoided making specific force structure recommendations" in order to "leave specific materiel decisions to the discretion of the Executive Branch and Congress," the list of "certain capabilities beyond the existing Program of Accounting (POR) that would be required , leaves little doubt about what the commission thinks those force structure decisions should be.
Changes in strategic forces
The panel concludes that the United States "must act now to implement additional policies and programs...beyond planned strategic delivery and warhead modernization, these may involve qualitative and quantitative adjustments to the U.S. strategic posture, or both qualitative and quantitative."
Specifically, the panel recommends that the United States “urgently” make the following changes to its strategic nuclear force posture: “load some or all of the reserve warheads; these warheads are currently in storage. Increasing the number of deployed warheads above 1 is prohibited by the New START treaty, which expires in early 550 and will likely result in Russia also increasing its deployed warheads.”
New information has appeared on the LGM-35A Sentinel ICBM about the deployment of the Sentinel intercontinental ballistic missile in a MIRV configuration. It appears from the latest information that the Sentinel ICBM has a higher throw weight than previously thought, 730 kg rather than 465 kg, and is capable of carrying two W-87-1/Mk21A warheads as part of the MIRV, but the current plan calls for the deployment of 400- tons of missiles with only one warhead (in a monoblock version). Obviously the Sentinel is larger than the MGM-134A Midgetman, but is likely 40% less launch weight than the LGM -30G Minuteman III.
The report also recommends increasing the planned number of deployed long-range countermeasures. The USAF currently has just over 500 AGM-86B ALCM ALCMs and plans to order 1 AGM-087A LRSOs (including test missiles), each costing approximately $181 million.
It is also recommended to increase the planned number of B-21 bombers and tanker aircraft that the expanded force will require. The US Air Force has said it plans to buy at least 100 B-21s.
It is recommended to accelerate the production program of the Columbia SSBN and Trident SLBM, as well as to accelerate the development and deployment of the new upgraded D5LE2 SLBM. The US Navy currently plans to build 12 Columbia-class SSBNs, and the completion of the new SSBN program will not occur until the 2040s, when the last 12th SSBN is completed.
It is planned to study the possibility of deploying some of the future ICBM forces in a mobile deployment option.
“Accelerate efforts to develop advanced countermeasures against adversary IAMD; and to plan and prepare to ensure that a portion of the future bomber fleet is in a state of continuous combat readiness in time for the date of full operational capability of the B-21.” Bombers now regularly practice loading nuclear weapons as part of emergency takeoff exercises.
Returning the bombers to Alert No. 1 would reverse President Bush Sr.'s 1991 decision to decommission the bombers. In 2021, the Air Force Deputy Chief of Staff for Strategic Deterrence and Nuclear Integration stated “that maintaining the bomber force fleet in constant combat readiness will deplete strength and cannot be carried out indefinitely.”
Changes in non-strategic forces
The panel appears to have concluded that the United States needs to strengthen its non-strategic nuclear forces in Europe and begin deploying non-strategic nuclear weapons in the Indo-Pacific theater: "Pacific region to deter adversary use of nuclear weapons and offset local conventional superiority weapons. These additional theater capabilities must be deployable, survivable, and vary in available power options.”
Although the commission does not explicitly recommend fielding nuclear land-based missiles and ballistic missiles, or, for the Navy, nuclear sea-launched cruise missiles, it seems clear that these capabilities would be part of the commission's logic.
During the Cold War, the United States stationed large numbers of non-strategic nuclear weapons in the Indo-Pacific region, but these weapons were withdrawn in the early 1990s and then dismantled as U.S. military planning became more reliant on advanced conventional weapons and limited theater capabilities.
Despite the withdrawal of some types of nuclear weapons from theaters after the Cold War, "Today, U.S. President Biden supports a broad range of nuclear response options designed to deter the limited use of nuclear weapons by Russia and China in both regions, including low-yield and variable-yield capabilities."
In addition to the ballistic missile submarines and nuclear-capable bombers operating in both regions, the US Air Force maintains the non-strategic B61 nuclear bomb for dual-purpose aircraft, which are designed to operate in both regions should the need arise. The Navy now also carries a low-yield warhead on its SSBNs, the W76-2, which was deployed specifically to give the President greater deterrence capabilities in limited scenarios in regional conflicts.
It is unclear why these existing options, as well as several additional capabilities already under development, including long-range weapons, would be insufficient to maintain regional deterrence.
The Commission specifically recommends that the United States urgently change its nuclear strategy to "provide the President with a range of militarily effective nuclear response options to deter or counter the limited use of nuclear weapons by Russia or China in theater."
While current plans already provide the President with such options, the commission "recommends the following changes to the posture of U.S. nuclear forces in theater: Develop and field in-theater nuclear weapons delivery systems that have some or all of the following characteristics:
– forward deployment in the European and Asia-Pacific theaters of operations. The United States already has dual-role fighters and B61 bombs designed for operations in the Asia-Pacific theater, supported by long-range cruise missile bombers;
– survival against a pre-emptive strike;
– a range of nuclear weapons options of varying yields, including low-yield munitions intended for regional operations, should complement the existing arsenal of low-yield munitions;
- carriers capable of "penetrating complex IAMDs with high confidence - the F-35A dual-role aircraft, B-21 bomber and air-launched cruise missiles are already being developed with enhanced penetration capabilities should partially replace and complement the existing arsenal of strategic and non-strategic capabilities."
Operationally, the US deployed low-yield W2019-76/Mk2A warheads on SSBNs in 4 to support rapid response in theater in limited scenarios and is developing new sea-launched RGM/UGM-51A CPS and land-based MGM-51A LRHW hypersonic missiles.
The report suggests, in the absence of treaty restrictions, the United States could also load each of its deployed Trident-2 SLBMs with a full complement of eight W-88/Mk-5 warheads (4 kg throw weight) or up to 840 W-12 warheads. 76/Mk-4 (4 kg), and currently the average missile carries four to five warheads, 180 W-4/Mk-76A or 4 W-4/Mk-88, or 5 W-4/Mk -76A + 4 W-1/Mk-88. With 5 SSBNs in service, the United States could double the number of warheads deployed on its SLBMs from 14 to 950.
The United States could also potentially reactivate the four launchers on each submarine that it deactivated to meet the New START limit, thereby adding 56 Trident II missiles with 2 warheads to the SSBN fleet. Since 448, of the approximately 2008 W3-000/Mk76 warheads still in the active and inactive US arsenal in 0, 4 have been upgraded to the W2007-2/Mk000A standard. Another 76 W1/Mk-4 warheads have been upgraded under the ALT 384 program and are also ready for installation on missiles.
The commission warns that China's development of "low-yield theater weapons could lower China's threshold for the use of nuclear weapons." Presumably the same would be true at the United States' doorstep if it were to follow the commission's recommendation to increase deployed (or deployed) low-yield non-strategic nuclear weapons in the Indo-Pacific theater.
As a result, the commission believes “that the current US nuclear strategy is generally reasonable, but simply needs to be supported by additional weapons and industrial capabilities. However, by failing to include recommendations for changes to the President's guidance on the use of nuclear energy"—or even considering such an adjustment that could change the U.S. force structure to allow for a "reduced emphasis on counterforce"—the commission limited its own flexibility to recommend any other options than just adding more weapons.
Three FAS scientists recently proposed a revised nuclear strategy that they believe would reduce the need for nuclear weapons while still being sufficient to adequately deter Russia and China. Instead, the commission appears to have adopted an unchanged nuclear strategy and instead focused on the arms race and increasing the number of nuclear warheads.
The commission's report does not explain or calculate how it arrived at the specific additions to the nuclear arsenal it says are needed. Only general descriptions of nuclear strategy and hypothetical capabilities of the Chinese and Russian to quantitatively increase their arsenals are presented.
The reason for recommending an increase in the US nuclear arsenal appears to be that the list of categories of targets that the commission believes should be targeted with additional warheads is very broad: “this means holding at risk key elements of their leadership, the security structure supporting the leadership in power, their nuclear and conventional forces, and their military industry.”
This numerical focus also ignores years of adjustments made to nuclear planning aimed at avoiding excessive levels of nuclear forces and increasing flexibility. When then-STRATCOM commander was asked in 2017 whether the United States needed new nuclear capabilities for limited scenarios, General John Hyten responded:
So today I'm very comfortable with the flexibility of our response options... And the reason I was surprised when I got to STRATCOM about flexibility is because the last time I executed or was involved in implementing a nuclear plan was about 20 years ago, and there was no flexibility in this regard. It was big, it was huge, it was extremely destructive, that's all. Now we have conventional responses, all the way up to nuclear, and I think that's very cool."
While advocating integrated deterrence and a whole-of-government approach, the commission nevertheless establishes an artificial dichotomy between conventional and nuclear capabilities: “the goals of U.S. strategy must include effectively deterring and defeating simultaneous Russian and Chinese aggression in Europe and Asia using conventional forces.
If the United States and its allies and partners do not field sufficient conventional forces to achieve this goal, U.S. strategy will need to change to increase reliance on nuclear weapons to deter or counter opportunistic or cooperative aggression in another theater of war.”
The report advises that nuclear arms control be subordinated to a nuclear weapons buildup: “the commission recommends that a strategy to address the two-nuclear-weapon-state threat be a prerequisite for developing U.S. nuclear arms control limits for the 2027–2035 period. The Commission proposes "that, once the strategy and associated weapons requirements are fleshed out, the U.S. Government will determine whether and how nuclear arms control restrictions will continue to enhance U.S. security."
In other words, this is a recommendation to first participate in the arms race, and only then figure out how to control these same weapons.
The commission's report recognizes the importance of arms control and notes that "an ideal scenario for the United States would be a trilateral agreement that could effectively verify and limit all Russian, Chinese, and U.S. nuclear warheads and delivery systems while maintaining sufficient nuclear forces United States to achieve security objectives and protect against potential violations of the agreement." However, the prospect of this “ideal scenario” becoming increasingly unlikely if the United States significantly increases its nuclear forces, as the commission recommends.
The commission recommends a major overhaul of infrastructure and facilities and an expansion of nuclear weapons development and production capabilities. That includes fully funding all NNSA recapitalization efforts, including mining plans, although the Government Accountability Office has warned the program faces significant challenges and budget uncertainty. The commission appears to brush aside concerns about the proposed mining program.
Overall, the report does not appear to acknowledge any restrictions on defense spending. For all the commission's recommendations to increase the number of strategic and tactical nuclear systems, there is almost no mention of cost in the entire report. Implementing all of these recommendations will require a significant amount of money, and that money will have to come from somewhere.
For example, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that development of the SLCM-N alone will cost about $10 billion through 2030, not to mention another $7 billion for other tactical nuclear weapons and delivery systems. The amount that will be required to implement new systems, in addition to addressing other vital issues such as IAMD, means that funding will necessarily come at the expense of cuts to other budget priorities.
The true cost of these systems lies not only in the significant funds spent to acquire them, but also in the fact that prioritizing these systems necessarily means deprioritizing other domestic or foreign policy initiatives that could do more to improve U.S. security.
Implications for US nuclear policy
The Strategic Policy Commission's report is essentially a congressionally approved rebuttal to another report, the Biden administration's Nuclear Posture Review, which many in Congress have criticized for not being hawkish enough.
The report does not describe in detail the methodology for developing force buildup recommendations, and it includes several statements and assumptions about nuclear strategy that have been criticized and called into question in recent studies. In some ways, it reads more like an industry report than a congressionally mandated study.
While the timing of the report means it is unlikely to have a significant impact on this year's budget cycle, it will certainly play a critical role in justifying increases in the nuclear budget in the coming years.
The recommendations included in the commission's report are likely to exacerbate the arms race, further reduce opportunities to engage with Russia and China on arms control issues, and redirect funding away from more pressing priorities.
At the very least, before embarking on this overly ambitious wish list, the United States must implement all of the Government Accountability Office's outstanding recommendations to fix its planning and budgeting processes, or risk further overburdening the assembly line of an already struggling American military-industrial complex. copes with current orders.
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