Captain Brian L. Sittlow is a naval officer, specializing in submarines, and a military fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not reflect any official policy or view of CFR or the U.S. government.
In January 2019, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) released a report on the projected cost of U.S. strategic forces from 2019 to 2028 and forecasted a price tag of $494 billion. That is half a trillion dollars over ten years to maintain and modernize portions of the U.S. strategic deterrent apparatus—a staggering figure for most people to comprehend. However, the United States should continue to fund the maintenance and modernization of its strategic forces, particularly because China and Russia continue to develop and improve their own strategic forces. For the United States, the expense is a necessary investment that will preserve global stability and help deter potential great power adversaries in the future.
The world has relied on nuclear deterrence to avoid major power war for three-quarters of a century. This protection should not be taken for granted. Furthermore, the top priority of the U.S. National Defense Strategy is to be ready for great power competition with China and Russia. This is where U.S. funding and readiness efforts should be focused, and deterrence should be the centerpiece of this strategy.
Half a trillion dollars comes into better perspective when you break the figure down to an annual basis, which is about $50 billion every year. When compared with the anticipated National Defense Authorization Act allotting $738 billion for FY 2020, the CBO’s strategic forces projection is only 6.7 percent, or about one sixteenth, of the overall defense budget. Juxtaposed against the cost of a great power war, the relative cost of maintaining and modernizing the United States’ deterrence apparatus is minimal by comparison, despite its initially overwhelming cost.
U.S. strategic deterrence emanates from the nuclear triad, which includes strategic forces in the form of ballistic missile submarines, land-based ballistic missiles, and bombers. The three legs of the triad operate together to protect the United States and its allies from strategic attack. Each leg, along with a wide variety of supporting warning and communication systems, ensures that all strategic deterrent forces are ready and alert. This creates a compounding effect that a “mono-ad” or a “di-ad” could not hope to match. Strategic deterrence requires all three legs.
The sea-based strategic deterrent, in the form of ballistic missile submarines based in Georgia and Washington, is the most survivable, providing an assured retaliatory capability. However, the existing fleet, which is composed of Ohio-class submarines, will have been operating at sea near continuously throughout its extended forty-two-year lifecycle—and cannot go forever. That is why the new Columbia-class submarine, required to be at-sea and on patrol by 2031, cannot absorb delays.
The current land-based deterrent is composed of Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). This system provides a network of launchers and warheads that present adversaries with a wide and dispersed targeting scheme that cannot be countered or over-matched. However, Minuteman III is also aging. Introduced in the 1970s, the system has been on alert from North Dakota, Montana, and Wyoming for decades. As a result, it is imperative that the new ground-based strategic deterrent (GBSD) system replace the Minuteman III.
B-52 and B-2 bombers based in Louisiana, Missouri, and North Dakota act as the air-based deterrent. However, the B-52s are also old (they were introduced in the 1950s!). The new B-21 bomber will ensure an air-delivered capability using long-range standoff cruise missiles that will incorporate modern technology to counter advancing adversary air defenses.
All three legs of the nuclear triad are long overdue for modernization, and modernization will not be cheap. However, the investment required to keep the United States’ deterrent credible, preventing major power war in the decades to come, is undoubtedly worth it in the long run. Without a credible deterrent, the United States could face an even more astonishing human cost from war—a cost the United States can ill afford to pay.