To enhance national security, the Biden administration will have to trim an exorbitant defense wish list

By David Kearn | March 13, 2024

The F-35 Lightning-II fighter plane—the most expensive US defense project ever—has encountered numerous cost overruns. The US government could end up spending $1.7 trillion over the lifetime of the plane. The Biden administration's 2025 budget for defense amounts to $850 billion, a net increase of $34 billion compared to last year. (Credit: Joely Santiago / US Air Force)

If forced to choose one word to describe the tenor and tone of the recent commission report on America’s Strategic Posture, “panic” would certainly be appropriate.

The report articulates the daunting challenges of the strategic environment confronting the United States, and some of its recommendations are sensible—where feasible—in the abstract. However, the failure of the commission to prioritize among alternative—and potentially competing—needs is a fatal flaw in the final product. The lack of any consideration of the resource constraints certain to influence future policy is also an egregious oversight. Ultimately, the report reads as a panicked response to a worst-case threat assessment with little useful guidance beyond the perceived need for more investments in both conventional and nuclear—including strategic and non-strategic—capabilities.

Mandated by the US Congress in 2021 and presented in October 2023, the report was produced by a bipartisan commission of a dozen former officials and experts in the field of nuclear weapons and is the culmination of nearly a year of study. The task of the commission was “to conduct a review of the strategic posture of the United States and to make recommendations on how to move forward.” The commission achieved its first objective—albeit in exceedingly pessimistic, alarmist terms. In terms of moving forward, however, the report is an abject failure.

The release of President Biden’s budget for fiscal 2025 this week provides Congress the opportunity to engage in some of the prioritization of an extensive and expensive wish-list of programs that the strategic posture report recommends, all but ignoring cost and efficacy considerations. Yet even with a commitment to high levels of spending, it is not clear that the defense industrial base and the nuclear enterprise possess the capacity to deliver on desired programs. Bipartisan agreement to “spend more” will do little to enhance national security in the absence of clear priorities.

Sounding the alarm. The United States is in the process of implementing a decades-long nuclear modernization program initiated under the Obama administration. Under the program, all components of the US nuclear weapons enterprise—from the three legs of the “strategic triad” of land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and long-range manned strategic bombers, to the nuclear command, control, and communications network, the complex of nuclear weapons laboratories, and the supporting infrastructure managed by the National Nuclear Security Administration—are programmed to be rebuilt, refurbished and recapitalized. The total cost has been estimated at approximately $1.5 trillion over three decades.

The international security environment has clearly changed since the nuclear modernization program was launched. But, while the commission argues that the fundamental US approach to nuclear strategy is sound, it embraces a worst-case analysis: “US defense strategy to address the two-power threat requires a US nuclear force that is larger in size, different in composition, or both.” Whether the United States needs these new military capabilities is debatable. But what’s most concerning is that the commission then sets an extremely—if not impossibly—high threshold for such needs, arguing that the United States must be capable of fighting and winning two wars against peer competitors—namely, China and Russia—simultaneously. And, anticipating a possible push back, the commission adds that “dismissing the possibility of opportunistic or simultaneous two peer aggression because it is unlikely could have the perverse effect of making it more likely.”

Even at the height of US power in the 1990s, the notion of a “two major theater war” force sizing construct (which envisioned near simultaneous campaigns against Iraq and North Korea) would have stressed US military capabilities even under the most favorable conditions. The report reiterates the need for an increased reliance on nuclear weapons, implicitly acknowledging the difficulty of achieving requisite levels of conventional military power.

Recommending a massive military buildup. The report argues that the ongoing strategic modernization program is necessary but not sufficient to address this daunting international security environment. According to the commission, the United States should take several measures to quickly expand deployed nuclear forces should Russia attempt to break out of New START limitations when it expires in two years—or earlier. Such proposed measures include exercising “upload capabilities” on the Minuteman ICBM force, potentially deploying additional strategic reserve warheads, and preparing to implement additional life-extension programs for warheads and platforms to avoid any shortfalls between the retirement of existing legacy systems and the delivery of modernized replacements.

Over the longer term, the commission report recommends that the nuclear modernization program should be supplemented to address the perceived need to hold more targets at risk as China’s strategic forces expand and its deployed integrated air and missile defense systems improve. The report recommends that the new Sentinel ICBM should be deployed with multiple warheads (also known as MIRVs) and additional purchases be made of the new B-21 strategic bomber and Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine, as well as the missiles they will carry.

The commission also makes an urgent case for the modernization and recapitalization of the US nuclear enterprise, which suffered dramatic reductions in capacity after the collapse of the Soviet Union and subsequent entry into force of strategic arms reduction and nuclear test ban treaties. The recapitalization of the enterprise was a central priority and the target of a focused rededication of funds and resources in the Obama administration’s modernization program. But this effort continues to face significant capital and workforce problems that underscore the complex and long-term nature of the challenge, for which there is no “easy fix.” Regardless of the funds dedicated to the problem, rebuilding the nuclear enterprise should be tempered with a realistic view of what is feasible.

Interview: California Congressman Ted Lieu on what you can do about existential threats

Beyond the strategic arsenal, the commission recommends investing in a new generation of tactical and theater nuclear weapons that can be forward deployed or moved into a region to enhance deterrence and reassure allies. Recommended non-nuclear investments include a proposed expansion of homeland missile defense to address a wider range of threats, space and cyber defenses, and capacity to move conventional forces around the globe.

Arms control and risk reduction, however, received less consideration and concluded the report after a curious section on economic sanctions. The commission report sees arms control as complementary to the deployment of adequate strategic forces to maintain and enhance deterrence and achieve US national security objectives. Because the report clearly focuses on initiating a large-scale, across-the-board military build-up, it sees the subsequent competition with Russia and China and their likely responses to such build-up as a less pressing concern.

A fatally flawed report. Precisely because the commission was made up of former policy makers, with an extensive collective experience in the vagaries of domestic politics and the challenges of policy implementation arising from entrenched bureaucratic and organizational processes, it was disappointing that so little effort was devoted to providing some clear guidance on how to proceed to best address a changing international security environment.

The report failed to clearly prioritize among the dozens of recommendations and to consider and assess critical trade-offs—such as acute versus less immediate needs, or potential longer-term challenges versus short-term concerns.

China’s strategic modernization program is a significant, long-term challenge that the United States must address. But even in a worst-case scenario of a collapse of New START (the only treaty that limits deployed long-range nuclear forces), a recent analysis argued that the United States could double the number of its deployed warheads (and so could Russia). While warhead numbers are not the sole measure of an effective strategic deterrent—even given more conservative assessments of China’s current deployed forces and estimated deployment schedule—the United States would still have a significant net surplus to continue holding both adversaries at risk.

Executing the ongoing nuclear modernization program, which is predicated upon a robust and adaptive nuclear enterprise, should be the primary focus of the US strategic posture. Other recommendations made by the commission are, at best, of secondary importance and, at worst, potential costly distractions.

For example, the development of a new generation of non-strategic (“tactical”) nuclear weapons is unwarranted, even in a challenging international security environment. Given the highly stressed condition of the nuclear weapons complex, the short- to medium-term focus of US policymakers should be squarely on the completion of the modernization program, making targeted additional investments in the nuclear enterprise, leaving the possibility for a potential future expansion of the strategic arsenal, and leveraging ongoing programs to maintain and enhance a robust strategic deterrent. But adding instead redundant or superfluous niche programs—as the report recommends—will only inhibit progress toward this objective. Moreover, existing and planned programs—such as the production of the improved B61-12 guided gravity bomb delivered by the F-35 Lightning combat aircraft, the new AGM-181 long-range standoff (LRSO) air-launched cruise missile to be deployed on US bombers, and the new W76-2 low-yield warhead deployed on fleet ballistic missile submarines—provide a sufficient capacity to deter limited nuclear use and, if necessary, deliver a proportional measured response.

Similarly, an expansion of homeland ballistic missile defenses is unwarranted. The US ground-based, midcourse defense system deployed in Alaska has proven to be one of the most costly and ineffective programs in the history of US defense procurement. And while it struggles to provide a credible defense against limited ballistic missile threats, the perceived long-term US commitment to develop and field a large-scale system has spurred adversaries to deploy countermeasures, including hypersonic weapons and long-range cruise missiles that have now become a US concern.

More generally, the quantitative expansion of Chinese strategic missile forces only underscores the long-understood notion that strategic defenses are of minimal value precisely because they can be overcome or overwhelmed. Funding for research and development to improve effectiveness of the existing limited system to address accidental or inadvertent launches, threats of coercion during a crisis (the “cheap shot” problem), and North Korea’s long-range missile program may be a prudent investment. But anything beyond that is a luxury that the United States cannot afford.

Finally, the resurrection of the concept of moving a portion of the land-based ICBM force to a road- or rail-mobile basing mode—something that was assessed, analyzed, and rejected multiple times at the height of Cold War tensions with the Soviet Union—is an unnecessary distraction that reflects the panicked nature of the commission report. Mobility has been consistently viewed as impractical, costly, and ultimately of little additional deterrent value.

Wargame simulated a conflict between Israel and Iran: It quickly went nuclear

Beyond the nuclear arsenal, investments in space assets—new satellite constellations, sensors, networks, and resiliency—and cyber defenses are important, but they have also received significant resources in recent defense budgets. Similarly, investments in long-term research and development, allowing the United States to sustain a competitive edge in emerging technologies, should be maintained. The focus on improving global lift capability was a curious issue to focus upon, amidst a wide range of potential conventional military force needs. While the commission’s mandate was to focus on US nuclear issues, the seeming disconnect between nuclear and conventional issues, particularly during a period where “integrated deterrence” is the watchword, is yet another drawback of the report. Critical areas in need of investment such as naval shipbuilding—especially attack submarines—and the procurement of long-range conventional munitions would prove more useful than new tactical or theater nuclear weapons and have much more impact on deterring adversaries.

Spending on weapons or systems that do not directly contribute to deterring adversaries is not only wasteful but it leaves the United States worse off in material terms. But herein lies the problem of framing the international security environment exclusively in terms of a two-peer nuclear competition. There are certainly several distinct deterrence challenges confronting the United States, most notably Taiwan and NATO’s eastern flank. The US strategic deterrent arsenal plays a critical role in providing a foundation to address both. But while the latter also entails the incorporation of forward based tactical nuclear weapons, the former is almost exclusively a conventional deterrence challenge.

Positing that the United States should rely more heavily on nuclear weapons because of conventional deficiencies is only a viable policy insofar as the underlying political and diplomatic relationships make a nuclear deterrent threat credible. That threat is credible in the NATO case, but it simply does not hold for the Taiwan scenario. One would have expected the commission to frame their analysis and recommendations with some reference for the ongoing need for investments in conventional forces to deter a potential Chinese military action against Taiwan, but this was an unfortunate omission.

Avoiding realities of who pays for these distractions. While the commission was not tasked with engaging in cost analyses of their various recommendations, they acknowledge that the costs are likely exorbitant. However, given that the current modernization program is approaching 10 percent of the annual defense department budget at a time when the top line is nearing $900 billion, it is even more egregious that the commission spent so little time prioritizing among the raft of its recommendations.

Defense spending may be one of the few beneficiaries of relatively bipartisan support in Washington, but with a federal debt approaching $34 trillion (roughly 98 percent of the US gross domestic product), and the defense budget consuming more than half of all discretionary spending, it is difficult to see how the topline budget can expand significantly beyond existing levels. Hard choices and difficult tradeoffs in US strategic investment are all but certain to emerge, and the collective wisdom of the commission would have been a valuable resource in attempting to address them.

Finally, as mentioned, the report goes to great lengths to decry the perceived lack of progress in renovating the nuclear enterprise, as well as the highly constrained and compromised state of the wider defense industrial base, even going so far as to consider public investment to incentivize the expansion of industrial capacity. This is an implicit—albeit damning—indictment of the Pentagon, Congress, and the defense industrial base to argue that the situation is so dire, with so much left undone, despite high levels of spending. Irrespective of the commission report’s flaws with regard to US nuclear strategy, it should be seen as further evidence for the pressing need for an industrial base reform, something the Biden administration is now attempting to address.

Piecing together a sustainable way forward. Even in the absence of restrictive resource and budgetary constraints, a focus on identifying and achieving concrete objectives that will position the United States and its allies to effectively deter aggression in critical regional flashpoints should be the priority given the stressed nature of the defense industrial base and the nuclear enterprise.

While the President Biden’s 2025 budget may provide funding for a wide range of capabilities—both nuclear and conventional—maintaining the schedule of the nuclear modernization program, while making further targeted investment in revitalizing the nuclear enterprise to enhance its capacity, would seem to be the most immediate and critical tasks. This endeavor provides the United States with a formidable capability to maintain strategic stability while also providing a hedge against a potential worst-case scenario. At the same time, sustained investment in key conventional military capabilities to deter China and Russia, and a long-term commitment to the funding of research and development efforts to exploit the benefits and mitigate the risks of emerging technologies would position the United States to address the challenges of a more competitive and potentially dangerous international security environment over the long term.

Together, we make the world safer.

The Bulletin elevates expert voices above the noise. But as an independent nonprofit organization, our operations depend on the support of readers like you. Help us continue to deliver quality journalism that holds leaders accountable. Your support of our work at any level is important. In return, we promise our coverage will be understandable, influential, vigilant, solution-oriented, and fair-minded. Together we can make a difference.

Get alerts about this thread
Notify of
1 Comment
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
1 month ago

It sure seems like its time to develop a metric that measures the total destructive power of these weapons which would allow the creation of a budget (not economical but biological) for their use. The destruction of most of the World’s population does not require more than a fraction of these weapons to be deployed and deploying them against your enemy has negative biological impacts on one’s own country, since we all live on the same planet. It seems to me we should be trying to be as selective as possible in any use and it would be prudent to… Read more »