WEAPONS OF MASS DESTRUCTION

BREAKING: U.S. Nukes Russia in Simulation Exercise

2/21/2020
By Jon Harper
U.S. Navy Adm. Charles Richard, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, briefs Secretary of Defense Mark Esper on the orientation of the command’s battle deck at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska, Feb. 20.

Photo: Defense Dept.

Secretary of Defense Mark Esper earlier this week participated in a “mini exercise” in which the United States launched a simulated nuclear strike against Russia, a senior Pentagon official announced Feb. 21.

While the U.S. military frequently conducts exercises to practice the mechanics of nuclear warfare and plays tabletop games to simulate crises, it is unusual for senior Pentagon officials to describe the results and for the secretary of defense to take part.

During the exercise that took place this week at Strategic Command in Nebraska, Esper played himself in a simulated showdown in Europe between Russia and NATO, a senior defense official told reporters during a briefing at the Pentagon under condition of anonymity.

“They attacked us with a low-yield nuclear [warhead], and in the course of the exercise we simulated responding with a nuclear weapon,” the official said, adding that it was a “limited” response. The official did not say what type of platform launched the attack in the simulation.

The pretend Russian attack was against a NATO target in Europe. The official did not say what type of target the U.S. military simulated attacking in retaliation.

During the briefing with reporters, senior Pentagon officials made the case for beefing up investments in the nation’s nuclear forces. The Trump administration is continuing plans drawn up by the Obama administration to modernize the military’s inventory of intercontinental ballistic missiles, bombers, submarines and air-launched cruise missiles. The plan is to bring online a new Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent, B-21 bomber, Columbia-class submarine and Long-Range Stand-Off weapon in the next decade or so.

The Trump administration has additional initiatives for the sea-based leg of the triad that were not part of the Obama administration’s plans. They include a low-yield submarine-launched ballistic missile warhead and a sea-launched cruise missile. Earlier this month, the Defense Department announced that the low-yield SLBM warhead, the W76-2, had been deployed. Pentagon officials are currently conducting an analysis of alternatives for a new sea-launched cruise missile, with the aim of fielding it in the next seven to 10 years.

Plans also call for modernizing the nuclear stockpile, which is managed by the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration. The Trump administration will start a program of record for a new warhead, the W93, to replace aging warheads such as the W88, the official said.

The official noted that the United States is an era of great power competition with Russia and China, as outlined in the 2018 National Defense Strategy. “The other side is building their nuclear weapons up, modernizing their stockpiles, and so this [U.S. modernization effort] is just a sensible response to that.”

During his visit to Stratcom, Esper was briefed on Russian, Chinese and North Korean nuclear threats, and discussed the challenges of replacing legacy systems with next-generation capabilities.

“We spoke a little bit about the transition risks involved with maintaining the old systems — the ICBMs, subs, bombers, cruise missiles — and making sure that the new systems come online before the old systems expire,” the official said. “The secretary is very much captured with … managing this so-called transition risk.

“We’ve had a couple of deep dives with the secretary so he understands that that period is going to be very risky,” the official added. “You’ve been tracking acquisition programs at the Pentagon for a long time, and there’s always a risk that the systems won’t be delivered on time. And so how do you manage that risk? We spent a lot of time on that — not just the weapon systems themselves but also the nuclear command-and-control that supports that.”

Plans to modernize the U.S. strategic arsenal are expected to come with a hefty price tag. The Congressional Budget Office, among others, has estimated that it will be north of $1 trillion.

The senior defense official pushed back on the notion that the modernization effort will break the bank as the military simultaneously pursues a new generation of conventional weapon systems.

“It’s affordable,” the official said. “You’ve heard a lot about a $1.3 trillion triad … [but] that’s over 30 years.”

Today about 4 percent of the defense budget goes toward the nuclear arsenal, including operation and sustainment costs, he noted. That will rise to about 6.4 percent during the peak of the recapitalization effort at the end of this decade, where it will remain for about 10 years. After that it will decrease to a “steady state” of about 3 percent of the budget pie, he added.

For fiscal year 2021, President Donald Trump has requested $28.9 billion for the nuclear enterprise, including $12 billion for modernization. He requested an additional $15.6 billion for NNSA efforts, according to the senior defense official.

Another senior defense official who briefed reporters was asked which modernization programs pose the greatest transition risk.

“I won’t say that any particular program either on the Department of Defense or the Department of Energy side … is more risky than others. But we know, looking at large capital acquisition and recapitalization programs in the past, that it is difficult to keep them on track and on budget and deliver on time,” the official said.

Legacy systems are well past their planned service lives, the official noted. That is one reason why nuclear modernization programs are the Pentagon’s top priority.

“The key thing is making sure they are fully funded both on the Department of Defense and on the NNSA side, and that’s what you see in the president’s budget request,” the official added.

 

Topics: Weapons of Mass Destruction, Defense Department