What You Should Know About the U.S. Nuclear Arsenal

February 2020
Topics: Defense Systems, Military Planning, Military Programs, Collaborations
MITRE is working to increase public awareness about the nation's aging and increasingly obsolete nuclear arsenal. We teamed up with George Washington University for an in-depth seminar on nuclear readiness, deterrence, and technology.
Participants at nuclear modernization conference speaking while sitting in chairs

Navy Vice Admiral Dave Kriete, Air Force Lt. Gen. Richard M. Clark and Navy Vice Admiral Johnny Wolfe, Jr. discuss the state of the U.S. nuclear arsenal at the Nuclear Modernization Seminar in McLean, Virginia.

"Since the Berlin wall came down, and certainly after 9/11, nuclear matters have not gotten a lot of attention," says Bill LaPlante, senior vice president of MITRE's National Security sector. "Americans deserve to have a better understanding of what's going on."

That's why MITRE and George Washington University recently co-sponsored an in-depth seminar at our McLean, Virginia, campus on nuclear modernization. The event brought together a dozen military, government, and scientific experts to share their perspectives with national security journalists, academics, and think tank researchers. The goal was to exchange accurate, up-to-date information and to ensure that nuclear issues remain part of the national conversation.

From World War Two through the fall of the Soviet Union, most Americans had some grasp of U.S. nuclear capabilities. The Cold War was in full swing. Nukes were constantly in the news as the two superpowers built and tested warheads and missiles. Schools constructed fallout shelters, and kids crawled under their desks for "duck and cover" drills.

Times have changed. Today, nine countries are believed to have nuclear weapons, including Russia, China and North Korea. Iran may also be developing the bomb. But nuclear deterrence has faded to a back-burner issue over the last two decades, rarely making headlines aside from occasional coverage of North Korean missile tests.

"Getting the entire nation to comprehend that the world has changed, and we need to do things differently—that's a big challenge in itself," said Peter Fanta, deputy assistant defense secretary for nuclear matters. "It requires education. It requires outreach. It requires the media. It requires understanding on the Hill."

The U.S. halted nuclear testing in 1992, and Fanta paints a bleak picture of what's happened to the U.S. arsenal since then.

"We stopped designing, building, modernizing, and upgrading. And the rest of the world did not. We have to build an infrastructure that is so resilient and responsive that you can build over a thousand warheads a year without breaking a sweat."

A Comprehensive Modernization Plan

Most of the military and defense leaders at the conference support the key recommendations from the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), a document that outlines the Trump Administration's nuclear strategy.

The NPR includes a controversial plan to produce 80 plutonium pits per year by 2030. A pit is the radioactive core that triggers a nuclear weapon, but critics say manufacturing them is unsafe, expensive, and harms the environment. Even supporters of the plan question whether we have the capacity to produce 80 pits per year. The U.S. hasn't produced a single one since 2011.

But Fanta contends that ramping up pit production is critical to our national security. "Even at 80 pits per year we will have 100-year-old components by the time we replaced them all. We need to stop arguing about it and get on with it," he said.

The NPR also recommends aggressively modernizing all three legs of the U.S. nuclear triad—the nuclear bombers, intercontinental ballistic missiles, and submarines that give us the capability to launch weapons by air, land, and sea.

"We had the best triad, the best deterrent, in the world. But we've ignored it for many, many years," said Vice Admiral Johnny Wolfe, director of Strategic Systems Programs for the U.S. Navy. "We can no longer ignore it because it underpins our national military strategy."

Preparing a New Generation of Humans—and AI

As the nuclear infrastructure has aged, so has the workforce. Cold War-era nuclear scientists, engineers, and designers are almost gone from the workforce.

"The most important thing that we've got in this entire business is our people," Wolfe said. "We have to get the next generation in and give them the opportunity to grow."

Aaron Miles, an assistant director at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, focused on the need for flexibility—the capability to modify weapons, along with a workforce that can quickly adapt as priorities change.

"It's very difficult to predict the threat environment decades from now," he said. "We have to build a degree of responsiveness into the systems themselves. And we need to have people who understand the challenges we face today but are also prepared to respond as things come up in the future."

Retired Marine Corps Gen. James Cartwright, formerly commander of U.S. Strategic Command and vice chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, captivated the audience with his futuristic description of hypersonic fighter jets using artificial intelligence (AI) to deliver nuclear missiles.

"Nuclear AI is real. It's going to have to be part of what we do," he predicted. "Almost everything is going to be Mach 20 and above, all the way to the speed of light."

Since flight crews can't survive those speeds, Cartwright says, AI would have to supplement some of the human decision-making.

A Consistent Deterrent Against Adversaries

Rebecca Grant, an independent national security analyst, brought the discussion back down to earth.

"These programs have to compete on the Hill," she said. "Nuclear programs, even the unglamorous ones, have to be able to compete for steady funding."

As to the fundamental question of whether the U.S. even needs nuclear weapons, the consensus among the speakers is that a strong nuclear program remains a major deterrent to our adversaries.

"They haven't prevented all wars and conflicts, but they've certainly prevented World War Three," said retired Air Force Gen. Robert Kehler, a MITRE board member and former USSTRATCOM commander. "I think they're going to be around until something of equal return value takes their place."

"Nuclear deterrence is a large part of what allows us to remain free from attack and allows our population to live free of fear," said Vice Admiral Dave Kriete, deputy commander of USSTRATCOM.

"If another nuclear nation considers harming us, we want them to look at our conventional forces, underpinned by our nuclear deterrent, and say, ‘Not today. Not today.'"

by Malini Wilkes

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