The debate over how to modernize America’s aging nuclear forces has taken on increasing urgency with the emergence of a newly assertive Russia and a new generation of nuclear powers with increasing technological sophistication.
North Korea, Pakistan and India all are working quickly to improve their nuclear arsenals and delivery systems. By next year, China is expected to be capable of delivering a nuclear strike anywhere in the continental U.S. for the first time in its history — a threat that Russia has posed for decades.
While the nuclear confrontation between the United States and Russia cooled off after the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union, it has never ended. Indeed, the long-held hope for continual reductions in nuclear forces now seems unattainable, nuclear arms analysts say. For the first time in years, the U.S. and Russia each have increased the number of nuclear warheads deployed over the latest six-month monitoring period — the U.S. by 57 additional weapons and Russia by 131.
Russia is spending $560 billion on military modernization over the next six years with 25% allocated to aging nuclear forces, part of a program to replace all of its Soviet Union-era launchers. U.S. officials say it will take at least $355 billion over the coming decade to upgrade America’s nuclear arsenal and keep up with the rearmament spree underway in the rest of the world.
In rural Great Falls, Mont., a small ranch house stands on the prairie with a sign at the gated entrance that reads “Ace in the Hole.” The house, tucked amid the rolling hills just off Highway 200, is a facade for what lies beneath it.
In a cramped capsule 70 feet below the house, Air Force Lt. Katie Grimley, 26, and Lt. Wesley Griffith, 28, command a fleet of 10 towering missiles capable of obliterating any spot on Earth in 30 minutes or less.
The underground capsule is one of many launch-control centers spread across 28,852 acres at Malmstrom Air Force Base. When it was first built, it was equipped with the latest gadgetry that 1962 had to offer.
The $355-billion price tag for modernizing the aging U.S. “nuclear triad” of bombers, submarines and land-based missiles over the next decade may not even be realistic, according to Jeffrey Lewis, an analyst with the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey. He said the actual expense, taking into account the tremendous spike in costs for new submarines, bombers and ballistic missiles, is likely to approach $1 trillion over the next 30 years.
The Air Force is able to maintain about 98% of its existing ICBMs on alert, despite their age, but even that comes at a high price. Upkeep expenses over the last three years have increased 36% to about $1.3 billion when compared to the same time frame a decade ago.
But can the U.S. afford to back away? Failure to maintain at least parity for U.S. nuclear forces could open the door to a fundamental recalculation in the balance of global power, analysts say.