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Why a $1 trillion endeavor to modernize the US nuclear arsenal could get more bipartisan support

Jeff Daniels
Why a $1 trillion endeavor to modernize the US nuclear arsenal could get more bipartisan support

President Donald Trump has made modernizing the nation's nuclear arsenal a top priority. Now, after years of being put on the sidelines, threats from abroad and congressional hearings scheduled for Wednesday could further highlight the need to update the country's weapons technology.

"Essentially, after the Cold War we took a vacation from modernizing the nuclear deterrent," said Michaela Dodge, a policy analyst specializing in nuclear weapons policy at Heritage Foundation's Center for National Defense.

A week after taking office, Trump instructed Secretary of Defense James Mattis to initiate a new Nuclear Posture Review, focusing on current and future needs and whether it is "appropriately tailored to deter 21st-century threats and reassure our allies." The last such review was issued in 2010 and concluded "Russia and the United States are no longer adversaries" and also discussed "the nuclear ambitions of North Korea and Iran."

Experts say the threat from North Korea has increased dramatically since 2010 with the rogue nation testing ballistic missile technology capable of carrying nuclear warheads. On Monday, North Korea fired several missiles, each believed to be capable of reaching U.S. military bases in Japan.

The U.S. military started deploying the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (or THAAD) system this week in South Korea in response to missile threats from North Korea. THAAD, which is manufactured by Lockheed Martin (LMT), is designed to intercept ballistic missiles and previously was deployed at U.S. bases in Guam and Hawaii, among others.

China has warned of "consequences" of THAAD deployment, which the U.S. military insists is for defensive purposes only.

"North Korea's accelerating program of nuclear weapons tests and ballistic missile launches constitute a threat to international peace and security, and are in violation of multiple United Nations Security Council resolutions," the U.S. Pacific Command said in a release announcing the THAAD deployment.

On Wednesday, the full House Armed Services Committee is scheduled to hold a panel, "Military Assessment of Nuclear Deterrence Requirements" with key military leaders scheduled to testify. The state of the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal, as well as nuclear threats from abroad, are expected to be major areas of discussion. A Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces also is set to meet in the afternoon Wednesday to discuss the "Global Nuclear Weapons Environment."

"Nuclear is sort of something that people brush over because it is scary and generally they are considered weapons that will only be used in the worst-case scenario," said Lydia Dennett, a nuclear policy specialist with the Project on Government Oversight, a nonpartisan independent watchdog. "But if the U.S. is planning to spend $1 trillion over the next 30 years, those plans should be looked at very carefully."

The $1 trillion estimate to modernize the U.S. nuclear arsenal includes warheads themselves and the delivery systems, Dennett said. But an Air Force spokesman, Capt. Mark Graff, told CNBC a more precise figure the government is using for the nuclear recapitalization (or modernization) is about $270 billion over more than 20 years.

Prior to becoming Defense secretary, retired Marine Corps Gen. Mattis expressed concern about the Air Force's ground-based Minuteman III, one leg of the nation's nuclear triad (strategic bombers, submarine-launched missiles, and land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles or ICBMs.)

There's already funding for development of a new stealth bomber manufactured by Northrop Grumman (NOC) that modernizes the current B-1, B-2 and B-52 force. The government is also funding development of the Columbia-class nuclear missile submarine, which replaces the Trident missile-armed Ohio-class submarine program.

But one major nuclear program that has yet to be decided is the so-called Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent, which would replace the aging Minuteman III weapon built by Boeing (BA) with a next-generation, land-based missile technology. The Air Force released its requests for proposal last summer and participants include several of the major defense prime contractors. The first contract award could be announced as early as the fourth quarter of fiscal 2017, according to an Air Force spokesman.

Mattis now is tasked with helping to modernize the U.S. armed forces and initiate the Nuclear Posture Review, which could be issued later this year. Trump's presidential memorandum also calls on the Defense secretary to "identify ways of strengthening missile-defense capabilities, rebalancing homeland and theater defense priorities, and highlighting priority funding areas."

Missile defense and modernization of the nuclear triad are areas that could get bipartisan support in the Congress, particularly given the geopolitical tensions.

"You're going to see bipartisan support for defense in general," said Richard Safran, a defense analyst at Buckingham Research in New York. The industry analyst also sees more demand internationally for missile defense technology, including THAAD, as well as Raytheon's (RTN) Patriot system.

"We have a lot of equipment that's out of date. I think you're going to see increased funding for that," he said.

The U.S. military is still using dated technology such as 8-inch floppy disks at some of its nuclear launch control areas, a Pentagon spokesperson confirmed Tuesday.

"The nuclear threat environment is dynamic and proliferating, with old and new actors developing advanced capabilities while the U.S. enterprise is relatively static, potentially leaving the United States at a technological disadvantage," according to the 2016 "Index of U.S. Military Strength" report issued by the Heritage Foundation, the conservative think tank.

The report noted that the U.S. nuclear triad uses aging technology that is dated, including Minuteman III missiles that are about 40 years old, Trident II missiles that are around 20 years old, as well as a fleet of B-52H bombers that are nearly 50 years old.

Indeed, components of some of the nuclear weapons are in some cases "timing out," according to Dodge, the Heritage analyst. "So what we do is try to remanufacture the components and of course the issue with that is that we are no longer testing or conducting field producing experiments."

Dodge said sometimes "very small differences" can impact the reliability of nuclear warheads so ultimately "our kind of margin of uncertainty increases. That might be problematic."

Heritage also found there's been a brain drain of sorts within the ranks of the U.S. military's nuclear weapon expertise. Experienced nuclear scientists and engineers are retiring from government laboratories and leaving behind knowledge of some of the older nuclear technology that serves as legs of the nuclear triad.

"It's probably true that the labs do have challenges in keeping the best people," said James Acton, co-director of the Nuclear Policy Program and a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C. "But I don't think that's exclusively a U.S. problem. Neither do I think it's an insurmountable problem either."

Despite the age of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, Acton said evidence suggests it's still more accurate than the Russian arsenal. Moreover, he contends that more of the U.S. nuclear arsenal would survive than the Russian arsenal if the U.S. attacked the Russians first.

However, the Carnegie nuclear policy expert said with all the proposed spending on large-scale modernization across the nuclear triad there's still need to "prioritize" spending.

In particular, he said more focus should be placed on command and control systems, including satellite and other communication systems with nuclear forces as well as how the military gets early warnings of an incoming strike.

Acton estimates approximately $100 billion in savings alone could be achieved from the nuclear weapons modernization program. He calls the Minuteman ICBMs, or the land-based missiles in Montana, North Dakota and Wyoming, probably the "least useful leg of the triad."

"I wouldn't rip those weapons out of the ground tomorrow. But I would suggest taking a new look at whether the life of those systems could be extended," he said.

Additionally, the Carnegie analyst said the U.S. military should decide between updating the nuclear gravity bomb or a new nuclear-armed cruise missile. "I believe it's unnecessary to do both of those," he said.

Both the updated B61-12 nuclear gravity bomb and new cruise missile are designed to be dropped from airplanes. Northrop Grumman's B-2 bomber and General Dynamics' (GD) F-16 fighter jet are expected to be outfitted with the gravity bombs, and eventually, the newer B-21 stealth bomber being developed by Northrop.

The B61-12 — part of the military's so-called warhead life extension program — is a guided weapon expected to cost upwards of $12 billion and include a tail kit made by Boeing that will make it more accurate and able to guide toward targets more effectively.

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