Nuclear Modernization: Is the United States Headed for a New Arms Race?

Monday, September 19, 2016
Frank G. Klotz

Undersecretary for Nuclear Security, U.S. Department of Energy

William Schneider Jr.

President, International Planning Services Inc.; Former Undersecretary of State for Security Assistance, Science and Technology (1982-86)

Joan Rohlfing

President, Nuclear Threat Initiative

Matthew Kroenig

Associate Professor and International Relations Field Chair, Georgetown University

Undersecretary for Nuclear Security at the U.S. Department of Energy Frank G. Klotz, President of the Nuclear Threat Initiative Joan Rohlfing, and President of International Planning Services William Schneider, Jr. join Georgetown University's Matthew Kroenig to discuss U.S. nuclear modernization policy. The experts share different opinions on the costs and benefits of developing a new generation of nuclear weapons and the effects on the balance of power among nuclear states. 

KROENIG: Good evening. Welcome to tonight’s Council on Foreign Relations meeting on nuclear modernization. This meeting is on the record.

My name is Matthew Kroenig. I’ll be presiding over tonight’s event.

As we know, the United States has plans to modernize all three legs of its nuclear arsenal over the coming decades, and the Obama administration argues that this modernization is necessary because as long as nuclear weapons exist the United States must maintain a safe, secure, and effective nuclear arsenal.

Critics, however, including in an article in the current issue Foreign Affairs by Fred Kaplan, argue that these programs are unaffordable, have been decided without adequate strategic thought and could fuel a new nuclear arms race. From another direction, there are charges that these upgrades are too little, too late and that the U.S. strategic arsenal is at risk of rusting toward disarmament.

Tonight we will discuss these issues. Joining me is an exceptionally qualified panel of speakers. Lieutenant General Frank Klotz is the undersecretary for nuclear security and the administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration in the Department of Energy. Prior to this appointment, he had a distinguished career in the U.S. Air Force in a number of positions, including as commander of Air Force Global Strike Command. In addition, he’s a former senior fellow here at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Joan Rohlfing is the president and chief operating officer of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, an organization she helped to found. Previously, she served in a number of positions in the U.S. government, including in the Department of Energy, U.S. House Armed Services Committee and the Department of Defense.

Finally, William Schneider is president of International Planning Services. He also served in a variety of positions in the U.S. government, including as undersecretary of state for security assistance, science, and technology in the Reagan administration.

Additional biographical information about our speakers is available in your program.

So welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations. And let’s go ahead and begin.

Frank, I’d like to begin with you. And just to make sure that everyone is on the same page, perhaps you could begin by just describing what the administration’s modernization plans are.

KLOTZ: Thanks, Matt. And it’s always a pleasure to be back at the Council on Foreign Relations, even on this side of the podium.

Well, the administration’s policy on nuclear weapons and nuclear weapons modernization has been pretty consistent from the very beginning, in fact from President Obama’s April 2009 speech in Prague where he stated that as long as nuclear weapons exist, the United States will maintain a safe, secure, and effective nuclear arsenal to deter adversaries and to assure allies and will do all this without nuclear weapons testing. And there have been a series of documents that have been put out by the administration ever since. The 2010 Nuclear Posture Review springs to mind, where that message has been reiterated.

And also, the point has been made that, in addition to maintaining a safe, secure, and effective nuclear arsenal, we’ll also continue to maintain the triad, the triad of intercontinental ballistic missiles, air-delivered weapons, as well as sea-launched ballistic missiles.

Now, one of the concerns, however, is that this triad of nuclear delivery systems, missiles, bombers, submarines, as well as the associated weapons that go with them are aging and aging rather rapidly. A couple of examples since I used to do this for a living in the Air Force, the last B-52H, which is the current B-52 we have within our force, rolled off the production line in 1962, which is, I think, about 54 years ago.

I spent a lot of time as a missile launch officer. The Minuteman III, which is the current ICBM that we have, was deployed in the 1970s, and even then was put into siloes that were constructed in the early 1960s. And even the Ohio-class submarine, which is the most survivable leg of our triad, its life has already been extended from 30 years to 42 years, and the first of those submarines are going to begin to age out here in the next decade.

Same thing goes with the weapons. We have the smallest stockpile that we have ever had since the early Eisenhower administration, reaching a peak of around 31,000 in 1967, now down to the latest unclassified number 4,700 weapons. And that stockpile is also the oldest stockpile we’ve ever had. The average age of the weapons in our nuclear arsenal that go with those delivery systems is 27 years.

As Bill and I were talking about earlier, there was a time where we used to turn weapons over about once every 10 years or so. So in any event, if we’re going to maintain a safe, secure, and effective force, we’re going to need to do something to replace the existing delivery systems and extend the life of the nuclear weapons that we have.

Now, it’s very expensive. It costs a lot to do that. I think the administration recognizes that. But to put it in some perspective, right now the strategic nuclear aspect of the Defense Department’s budget is roughly 3 percent of total defense outlays. That will grow to somewhere between 5 and 7 percent over the next 10 years and then drop back down to where it was. This is not the highest it’s ever been.

And Jonathan Lachman is here to correct my numbers from OMB if I’m wrong, and I’m also going to say something that will probably get me in trouble with Jonathan, is that in order to do this we’re going to need to have the budgets, which will be very, very difficult to do if the caps in the bipartisan budget act continue to be enforced or, God forbid, if sequestration should rear its ugly head again.

KROENIG: OK. Now, so you’ve said that the administration has been consistent in its approach to nuclear weapons and it has said for years that it needs a safe, secure, and effective nuclear arsenal. But also, President Obama had a pretty bold ambition of aiming toward a world without nuclear weapons. And some critics have said that there’s a tension here. On one hand, the president is saying he wants a world without nuclear weapons; on the other hand, he’s building a new generation of delivery vehicles. How would you respond to those criticism?

KLOTZ: Well, I would say two things. First of all, the administration did pursue a new strategic arms agreement with Russia and succeeded in negotiating the New START Treaty which will reduce the numbers even further when the full reductions have taken place.

He put out the offer, the expectation that those negotiations, that negotiation process would continue and that we would begin to focus in the negotiations on other types of nuclear weapons, specifically nonstrategic or tactical nuclear weapons, but also weapons that are held in reserve.

As everyone in this room knows and does not need reminding, the bilateral relationship between Russia and the U.S. is not the best it’s been in the past and we have not been able to pursue additional negotiations with the Russians on this particular topic. That’s the first part of that.

The second part of that is, one of the things he said in the April 2009 Prague agenda, or stressed, was the threat posed by nuclear materials in the hands of terrorists or other non-state actors. And this administration has done an awful lot of work through the Nuclear Security Summit process, through efforts to reduce access to special nuclear materials, to detection of potential cheating across the board to try and reduce nuclear dangers. And I think that’s quite a legacy, quite frankly.

KROENIG: OK, thank you.

Now, Joan, I think I’d like to bring you in here, because we mentioned some of the critics of the administration’s plans in the introduction. My understanding is you have some criticisms of these modernization plans, so could you briefly spell some of those out for us?

ROHLFING: Sure, happy to. And before I do that, I want to just note that my remarks tonight represent my own views and not necessarily that of the Nuclear Threat Initiative.

So I want to share a different perspective. And I will start by crediting the administration for the progress it made with the New START Treaty as well as with the great strides, I think significant strides it made in working to raise nuclear material security as a priority, keeping materials out of the hands of terrorists. I think there’s been tremendous progress on that front.

But in answer to the question of tonight’s meeting, is the U.S. headed for a new arms race, I would say not only are we headed for it, we are in it. And let me just unpack the ways in which I think that is true. And I also do want to acknowledge also up front that I do believe that it’s important for us to maintain a safe, secure, and effective deterrent for as long as nuclear weapons exist. The U.S. must have a safe, secure, and effective deterrent.

That said, I believe we’re sleepwalking down this modernization path, that the path that we’re on is not responsive to the changed threat environment of today and that we’re simply replicating a force structure and posture that was put in place 60 years ago. And I think we need to think differently about it.

And if I think about global trends, let me just talk for a moment kind of at the 30,000-foot level of the changes I see in the international environment and then come specifically to the U.S.-Russia relationship.

Globally we’re in an environment where there are more nuclear states certainly than there were when we conceived of the current force structure and posture 60-pluse years ago. There’s growing risks of nuclear terrorism to which our strategic deterrent is not responsive.

There are new technologies and I think we haven’t really begun to understand and think through analytically, strategically the implications of new technologies, like the vulnerability of our forces to cyber threats, hypersonic vehicles, before we came in here tonight, we were talking about underwater drones in addition to our adversaries’ modernization programs, so that’s all happening at a global level.

But with respect to the U.S-Russia relationship, what’s really troubling to me is that I see the system of arms control agreements that has kept strategic competition in check, it was built over a period of decades, is disintegrating. And this is not something that’s happened just over the last couple of years since Russia took Crimea and moved into Ukraine, this is something that goes back 20 years. There’s been a series of events that have contributed to this unraveling. I think NATO expansion has posed a challenge to the relationship. Our withdrawal from the ABM Treaty has posed a challenge to the relationship.

There’s been a disintegration of the legal and technical framework that preserved the concept of crisis stability that was embedded in our early arms control agreements, but then we walked away from with the Treaty of Moscow in 2002, any limitation on MIRVs evaporated. So, you know, we’re introducing new, more lethal technologies at the same time that we have opted out of regulation of the offense/defense balance. And I think this is contributing to a strategic, instable environment.

We’re also on a path that’s prohibitively expensive. And so it’s time, I would urge the new administration, to undertake a series of studies to really look at the strategic underpinning of our deterrent and to make some decisions about modernization based on that review.

KROENIG: OK, great.

Well, Bill, I’d like to go ahead and bring you in because I understand that you also have some concerns with the modernization plans, but that they’re different than Joan’s, so I’d be interested in your thoughts on these issues. And then also on this issue of a new arms race, are we in a new arms race or not?

SCHNEIDER: Yeah. Well, thank you, Matt. And I appreciate the opportunity to discuss this issue which has, I agree, been under-discussed for the past quarter of a century as our hopes for the post-Cold War world have slowly melted down, but we haven’t quite gotten it into the public debate as yet.

First, I think we need to get real about the environment we’re in. We are in the second nuclear age. The notion that the parties that hold nuclear weapons are likely to abandon them is worse than a Utopian aspiration. It leads people to the wrong conclusions about how they should cope with this real challenge to the stability of the entire international community.

What has happened certainly since the New START agreement was signed is there’s been an enormous surge of modernization in both Russia and China, that when the Chinese complete their modernization program they will have between five and 10 times as many warheads as they had during the Cold War period.

The Russians have drastically fractionated the payload, so they will have a potential for a huge increase in the number of reentry vehicles. Every mission area of their military forces, including air defense, maritime air defense, ballistic missile defense, antisubmarine warfare, as well as some novel weapons applications, like hypersonic live vehicles and the Kanyon system, which is an unmanned undersea vehicle that was equipped with a 100 megaton warhead, all of those new mission areas are getting nuclear weapons.

The manufacturing technology that is going to produce such an outpouring of low-cost, precisely produced goods is eventually going to be applied to nuclear weapons as well. That is, 90 percent of the cost of a facility to produce nuclear weapons is in the facilities itself. That was our experience in the Manhattan Project.

We have an enormous surge of nuclear weapons that’s going to hit the international environment. And we need to adjust our policies to improve the propensity of our forces to deter and to discourage our allies from seeking themselves to acquire nuclear weapons. This requires modernization of our forces and, I would say, to take advantage of the new technologies that have been produced since the end of the Cold War, including precise, conventional weapons, advanced ballistic missile defense, cyber operations, space defense, and several others.

The Defense Science Board has got a study going on now, which we will be finishing in the next few months, on deterrence, which I think will bring in a lot of these new capabilities and show how they can contribute to nuclear deterrence. And so I think we need to focus on nuclear deterrence and not allow hope to become a strategy.

KROENIG: OK, great.

Well, some criticisms of the administration’s plans there, Frank, especially, I think, from Joan. How would you respond to some of those criticisms?

KLOTZ: Well, to the question of whether, you know, we’re engaged in a new arms race, I think you have to ask the question of timing of when, as I think Bill pointed out, the Russians began a rather significant program to modernize, expand and diversify their nuclear arsenal.

And many of the—I don’t know if you said this or not, Bill, forgive me if I’m repeating you. But one of the points is that, you know, many of their new systems, their modernized systems are well-along in development and will be fielded well-before we even get into, you know, the engineering/production phase of development on that. So if anything, if there’s an arms race, if anything, we’re lagging in terms of that which we’re doing. But I’m not sure we are in an arms race, or we, the United States, are in an arms race.

As I indicated earlier, we have brought down significantly the number of systems that we have, whether it’s delivery systems or weapons. I’ve already talked about the decrease in the size of the overall nuclear weapons stockpile. At the same time, the infrastructure that supports that, which Bill alluded to there, which had production facilities across this country, have essentially been turned back into either commercial operations or in the case of Rock Flats in Colorado is a meadow, so there has been a significant change there.

And the number of delivery systems are already down. When I came into the missile business early in my career, there were 1,054 intercontinental ballistic missiles located at nine operational bases. We now have 440 located at three operational bases. You could say the same thing about our submarine force. You could say the same thing about our bomber force. So if anything, we have been going down consistently. I still think we have a safe, secure, and effective deterrent, but we’re going to have to work very hard to maintain that.

KOENIG: Bill, go ahead.

SCHNEIDER: Just to follow up on Frank’s point, the fact that both the Russians and Chinese have focused a lot of their modernization on these so-called sub-strategic systems and these threaten countries that are within striking distance of these medium and intermediate-range systems, the question is, and I would say it’s been magnified by the recent loose talk about no first use, is, are Japan and Korea, for example, going to continue to believe that the U.S. will use its nuclear weapons against adversaries who strike them with nuclear weapons when the United States is not attacked?

If they come to believe that we will not use nuclear weapons and will not maintain the credibility of their use, then we’re going to see the second nuclear age not so much characterized by countries like North Korea and Iran, but allied and friendly countries that have previously depended on the United States for nuclear security in the so-called nuclear umbrella will get their own nuclear weapons. That is not a good outcome.

KROENIG: Well, on the issue of the timing of these modernization programs, it reminds me of the great quote from Secretary of Defense Harold Brown back in the Cold War who said when we build, they build; when we don’t build, they still build.

So maybe I’ll come back to you on this, Joan, because you said you do see us in a new arms race. And do you see our adversaries responding to these modernization programs, or do you see them responding to other issues, or is it more complicated than that?

ROHLFING: I think they’re responding to other issues that we laid the predicate for, you know, one and two decades ago. And I agree with Frank, we have brought down our numbers. We have done some things that I think make arguable or allow us to make the proposition that we’re not racing on our side. But I worry about where we’re headed given the disintegration of the relationship between the U.S. and Russia and I worry about a world where these systems are not regulated anymore, where the New START agreement expires, as it’s slated to do in five years, and we have not figured out how to either extend it or replace it with some other way of regulating these forces.

So I think we’re in a very precarious position right now, and I think we need to invest a lot of effort in two things. One is, as we think about how we maintain the deterrent looking forward, building an architecture that prioritizes stability, that reduces the risks of accident, and miscalculation and that meets our deterrent needs in a cost-effective way. We haven’t even really talked about the costs. I think I’d like to come back to that in a moment.

But then secondly, we really need to work on rebuilding a cooperative relationship with the Russians. I think that is the most cost-effective and safest, most secure way to pursue our security goals.

KOENIG: Well, you said you wanted to come back to the costs, so let’s go ahead and do that. According to some estimates, the cost of modernizing the U.S. nuclear arsenal over the next 30 years will approach $1 trillion, which is a large number. On the other hand, as Frank pointed out and as some others have argued, that comes to something like I’ve seen estimates of 5 percent of the defense budget. So would you disagree with those numbers, or do you see 5 percent as too much to be spending on the strategic deterrent?

ROHLFING: Well, I think 5 percent compared to 3 percent of a very large budget is a lot of money. But more importantly, it’s a finite amount of money and it’s trading against other defense priorities. And so I think this has got to be a discussion about what are our defense priorities.

I had pulled together a few quotes from recent testimony before the Congress. And the administration understands that they’ve got a problem. Now, they’re headed out the door and this is going to land on the desk of the next president. But, you know, Frank Kendall has said under testimony we do have a problem in the budget and that problem is called recapitalization of the triad. “There is no way I can see that we can sustain the force structure and have a reasonable modernization program unless we get more money in the defense budget.” Other times he’s talked about basically the huge affordability problem and that this is a challenge the administration is going to have to confront.

So, you know, the tradeoff here is going to be against conventional force requirements and priorities. And I think that’s what the next administration is going to have to give a good, hard look at.

SCHNEIDER: Nuclear stability has been at the heart of our ability to manage the international security environment with Russia and China. The nuclear deterrent operates every day. It’s a fundamental part of our diplomacy.

When I served as associate director of OMB for national security programs and reviewing some of the data, President Kennedy had a budget that consumed 10 percent of GDP, nearly 10 percent, 40 percent of which went to strategic forces. That investment and the tail of that investment has contributed to the stability we enjoyed through the entire Cold War. Now we’ve gone on this modernization holiday for 25 years, now our modernization program will be fully completed 20 years after the China and Russian modernization programs. That in itself is a source of instability and something that we need to correct.

I’m reminded of some debates around 1950 when General Bradley, who was then chairman of the newly created Joint Chiefs, got into a dispute with the secretary of defense as to whether the defense budget should be 15 (billion dollars) or 18 billion (dollars) after Secretary Johnson had rejected the idea of a $30 billion budget. Well, that was about six months before North Korea invaded South Korea and the budget went from then about 14 1/2 billion (dollars) to 70 billion (dollars) in one year.

So I believe the question of leadership can be very effective in managing the national commitment to defense if the leadership and the public are persuaded that it’s necessary. We have a very, in that respect, a very responsive and adaptive political system.

KOENIG: OK. I think there’s one more issue we should touch on before we open it up to the members. And Joan in her opening remarks said that she feels like we’re sleepwalking into some of these modernization plans.

In the Kaplan article that I mentioned, he says that essentially that the triad was developed for bureaucratic reasons, we’re renewing them because we’ve always had them; and rather, what we need to do is start with a blank slate and assess the threat environment and design an arsenal to deal with that. And so he suggests, other people have suggested, do we need a triad? Can we get rid of one or two legs of the delivery vehicles? Do we really need this long-range cruise missile?

So maybe we’ll come back to you on this, Frank. Do we need the triad and the cruise missile? Can we get by with less?

KLOTZ: Well, sleepwalking is a rather curious way to put how we have thought about these issues, both in this administration and in the administrations have preceded us. I wish I could have a chart here and show you every single study, analysis that has been done internally to the U.S. government, internally to the Department of Defense and the Department of Energy, as well as numerous outside groups who have opined on these particular issues.

I think while there has not been much in the area of a public debate, and I hope that events like this will help spur that in the years ahead, this is an issue that has been analyzed quite extensively and we come out the same place that we are now, which is maintaining a triad, and we can go into more detail if you like, for the various ways in which that supports strategic stability, particularly in a crisis.

As far as the successor to the air-launched cruise missile, also known as the Air Force’s Long-Range Standoff capability, the current bomber force relies upon air-launched cruise missiles, particularly the B-52s which do not have the ability to get close to the targets, whether conventional or nuclear, that they might be assigned against, and so they use a cruise missile as a standoff capability.

The current air-launched cruise missile was, as I mentioned earlier, I think first deployed in 1982. It is beginning to show the signs of aging that any system that has been around that long will show. It is also no secret that the Russians and other countries are investing very heavily in state-of-the-art air defense systems which raise concerns about the long-term effectiveness of things like the cruise missile over a period of years. So, you know, this administration, the Air Force, the Department of Defense have said that this is a system that we need to replace in order to maintain a viable air leg to the triad in the—in the future.

The Department of Energy, which I represent, has a role to play in that because we’ll also need to develop a life-extended warhead that’s on the current—extend the life of the warhead that’s on the current air-launched cruise missile in order to fit it into the new system.

KROENIG: Well, Joan and Bill, I’m interested in your views on these issues as well, but I think it’s time to go to the floor for questions. But maybe you can wrap in your thoughts and those in views in response to some of the questions.

So at this time I would like to invite members to join the conversation with their questions. A reminder that this meeting is on the record. Please wait for the microphone and speak directly into it, and stand and state your name and affiliation. Please limit yourself to one question, and be concise, to allow as many members as possible to speak. And right up here in front.

Q: Thanks. I’m Jeff Pryce with Johns Hopkins SAIS.

Joan and Bill seem to agree on the threat of MIRVed ICBMs, particularly in Russia and China. We, the United States, have moved away from MIRVed ICBMs. So I wonder if you could speak more to the way we can discourage or try and move their force structure in a more stabilizing direction.

KROENIG: Would you like anyone in particular to address?

Q: Both Joan and Bill, but—

KROENIG: OK. Joan or Bill, who would like to begin?

ROHLFING: I suspect we have different solutions to that question. Please.

SCHNEIDER: OK. Well, I think that it’s a very pertinent question, because decisions we’ve made cumulatively by things that we’ve done or decided not to do have given a real payoff to investment in these capabilities. For example, the limited investment that we’ve chosen to make in ballistic missile defense, where we only are prepared to defend against a certain kind of very limited threat, has created a big payoff for producing multiple warhead reentry vehicles in large numbers, which China and Russia are now doing. That’s a very destabilizing form of investment. So one of the things that we can do is invest in a really modern ballistic missile defense, which is entirely practical and very congenial to the kind of technologies that’s coming out, especially the technologies of autonomy and artificial intelligence.

So that’s an illustration of something I believe we can do that can help shape the way the established nuclear states invest and create their new nuclear capabilities so that the ones they will create will be narrowly focused on preventing the coercive threat or use of nuclear weapons. The post-Cold War technology development has produced a lot of other interesting technologies that we—I believe, that we can apply with great intensity, that will have the effect of discouraging investment in technologies that they’re now getting a free ride on. And I think that will be in the interest of global stability, and do what President Obama has—I think very constructively—aspired it, which is to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in international affairs.

KROENIG: Joan, more missile defenses is the answer?

ROHLFING: No. More missile defense has got us in this box in the first place. And I think we’ve invested hundreds of billions of dollars and don’t yet have missile defense that’s going to be effective against the kind of strategic threat that we see emerging. So I would say we ought to go back to some kind of regulation through agreement. We need to talk about, on the one hand, limiting the deployment of MIRVs, but on the other hand recognizing that to achieve crisis stability we can’t have open-ended ballistic—at a national level—missile deployments. And so we need to engage in a conversation about cooperation.

SCHNEIDER: The INF Treaty has not been very successful at limiting Russian investment in that area. The effort to limit application of MIRVs in the New START agreement has not been very successful. It may be that arms control is not the right diplomatic tactic to affect the decision making on defense modernization in Russia and China and we need an alternative approach.

ROHLFING: I think that’s a debatable proposition, because I would argue we haven’t been pursuing that kind of engagement with them over a period of time, but.

KLOTZ: Well, this is an issue which, unfortunately, is tinged with a fair amount of regret. We did have a treaty, it was called the START II treaty, which would have limited both sides to single warhead intercontinental ballistic missiles which were considered, you know, in terms of thinking of stability in a crisis, of the most concerning of the weapons systems. For a variety of reasons, the treaty never entered into force. And as you said, we marched down the path in order to reach the warhead limits under the Moscow treaty, as well as the—a much-overlooked treaty, I might add—and the New START treaty to go to single reentry vehicles on the ICBMs. The Russians have taken a different course. I suspect there would have to be an awful lot of negotiating incentive to change that anytime soon.

KROENIG: OK, great. Let’s go back to the floor and—over here.

Q: My name is Wendy Frieman.

This is a yes or no question. And after the yes or the no, we can move on. Do any of the presidential candidates have a position on what you all have been discussing?

KROENIG: Who wants to take that one?

KLOTZ: First of all, there are no yes and no answers in my world. (Laughter.) But secondly, as an officer of this administration, a political appointee, I am enjoined by lord knows how many different laws and regulations from opining on the position of either presidential candidate.

KROENIG: OK, you get off the hook easy. (Laughter.) So tough question. So, Joan and Bill.

SCHNEIDER: As Joan suggested earlier, these issues have been rather submerged. And it has not been a particularly front-burner issue in the national campaign. So I think both of the candidates have referred to the need to invest more in defense, even though they haven’t spoken specifically about what programs should be there. But I do think that there’ll be a rethinking of investment in national defense, whoever becomes the next president.

KROENIG: Well, Trump did have one quote on this, that I remember. He said he hears our nuclear weapons are getting old and Russia’s are tippy-top. That one—that stuck in my head. But, Joan, what are your thoughts on the candidates and—

ROHLFING: Well, I agree with Bill. I think there’s not a lot been said. And what has been said is not particularly clear, so.

KROENIG: OK. In the front, William Courtney.

Q: Bill Courtney, RAND.

The British are committed to modernizing their strategic submarine deterrent. There’s a risk with Brexit that Scotland may leave—the deterrence based in Scotland. What are the options for Great Britain if Scotland were to leave? For example, would a less-expensive option be something like F-35s, with a new long-range cruise missile?

KROENIG: OK. What does Britain do if it loses its submarine base in Scotland?

SCHNEIDER: Well, it can move the base to England from Scotland. That would be one alternative. It would not be cheap, but it’s—it would be practical. I mean, we have built new bases for nuclear submarines over time. We used to have them abroad. And so there are a number of alternatives that could be undertaken. They could also revisit cruise missiles. And there’s a fair amount of modern technology that could give them—cruise missiles is a very good option. And you know, finally, they can go back to aircraft delivery. And there might be some interesting options, as we’ve shared the development of the F-35. They may choose—if these hypothetical circumstances could emerge—to participate in the B-21 program.

ROHLFING: I don’t think moving to England is an option. I think that’s cost-prohibitive. I think they’d probably knock on our door and ask if they could send their arsenal to Kings Bay. And we’d have an interesting decision to make.

KROENIG: OK. Other questions? Second row here.

Q: Hello. I’m Jamie Yassif.

I wanted to follow up on the thread earlier about ballistic missile defense as a possible way to influence the strategic calculations of Russia and China, and particularly sort of push back on the notion that science and technology is going to save us here and change the strategic calculation. When we were testing ballistic missile defenses 15, 20 years ago, there were all these problems with trying to hit missile and distinguish between them and decoys. And I think at the time it became very clear to us that there’s an offensive advantage in those kinds of systems and you can invest a lot of defense but ultimately it’s cheaper to defeat those defenses than it is to mount—than it is to mount defenses that will defeat a new, more complex nuclear weapon. And I know that there are new imaging processing technologies coming online and artificial intelligence and what have you. And so certainly we can engage in an escalated arms race in that domain, but I’m deeply skeptical that’s going to flip the strategic—the balance between defense and offense. And I would ask if anyone on the panel wants to comment on that. Thank you.

KROENIG: And, Jamie, what is your affiliation?

Q: I speak for myself, but I work with the Open Philanthropy Project. Thank you.

KROENIG: OK, who would like to take this one up?

ROHLFING: I’ll go, because I can go quickly. I agree. (Laughter.)

SCHNEIDER: All right, there’s been a lot of changes in technology in the past 15 or 20 years, and including the technologies that support the application of directed energy for applications—for military applications, including missile defense. The Missile Defense Agency is drawing up a road map for the application of directed energy to the ballistic missile defense program. The national laboratories are the—the national laboratories are working on these projects.

The issue, as I mentioned earlier, we’ve gone to sleep for 25 years on the modernization of our strategic forces because of our aspirations that the end of the Cold War meant the end of the concern about nuclear weapons. But now that Russia and China and North Korea have given us an incentive to revisit the matter, the technologies for being able to invert the cost equation between offensive and defensive strategic forces is something that’s now available, and the technologies—the underlying technologies support it.

KROENIG: And our second sleep metaphor. Maybe we’re doing this meeting too late and night. We should do a breakfast meeting next time. (Laughter.) But, Frank, you wanted to get in on this.

KLOTZ: This is going to take a slightly different, divergent route, because you said science, technology, and engineering, and you said national laboratories. I want to say something about Department of Energy and the National Nuclear Security Administration, and why this is very, very important to us. We have under the NNSA three laboratories that have responsibility for. DOE, Department of Energy, has a total of 17. And those particular laboratories bring a lot of scientific, technological, technical and engineering expertise to bear on a host of national security issues, not just the maintenance and the life extension of our nuclear weapons arsenals.

And a large part of what we’re concerned about when we go back to this discussion of can we afford to do this, is our concern that we’re able to maintain both the intellectual and physical infrastructure—scientific, technical, and engineering infrastructure—that underpins our nuclear deterrent, as well as a number of other government agencies, including Department of Defense’s research and development programs.

Much of the infrastructure we’re operating now dates back to the early days of the Cold War as well as some even to the Manhattan Project. And there’s some very real challenges in maintaining those facilities over the long term. We’ve even had episodes since I’ve been in the chair for the past two and a half years where ceilings in some of the buildings have collapsed, or electrical systems have failed, which causes not just a risk to employees or to the general public, but causes us to shut down operations for weeks, months at a time.

So as we’re thinking about the costs of recapitalizing the nuclear delivery systems that are a part of the triad and extending the life of the warheads associated with them, you also have to keep in mind the investment that we have in that. Oh, by the way, this nation has not tested—explosively tested a nuclear weapon for now over 20 years. And one of the reasons we’ve been able to continue to certify the safety, security, and reliability of the nuclear weapons stockpile year after year is because we’re able to bring this type of scientific, technical, and engineering focus to assessing the stockpile. And that has meant an investment in scientific capability, high performance computing capability. And that’s also part of the cost they have to bear.

KROENIG: Well, there’s been a fair amount of disagreement on this panel, and I think this may actually be one area of agreement. So, Bill, we’ll go to you first and then, Joan, do you agree that maintaining the infrastructure and the scientific base—

SCHNEIDER: Yeah. No, it is indeed very important to maintain the infrastructure. I think it’s useful to calibrate the consequences of neglect. We cannot produce a single nuclear weapon. We only do the life extension of existing programs. Russia, China, and now North Korea have serious production of nuclear weapons. They’re produced, in the case of Russia, by the hundreds. They’ve been able to develop new nuclear weapons for new missions, new designs. We have done none of that.

And the cumulative effect of this is to increase the cost of being able to modernize because you’re stuck with obsolete equipment and deteriorating capital infrastructure. So it’s the—compared to in the ’80s when I served in the Office of Management and Budget, when we were producing a thousand weapons a year, we have gravely undermined the ability of the country to respond to a contingency where we need more production.

KROENIG: And, Joan, thoughts on infrastructure and the scientific base?

ROHLFING: Well, I do agree that we need to maintain our infrastructure and our S&T base. I think that’s vitally important. I think we would probably come up, again, with different solutions in terms of precisely what’s needed, particularly with the infrastructure—you know, how much—how should these new facilities be sized? You know, I tend toward smaller footprint rather than a small footprint, but would acknowledge that we absolutely need to invest in maintaining these vital capabilities.

I am not as bothered by the absence of new production capacity. I mean, we do have—and correct me if I’m wrong, Frank—the capacity on a onesie, twosie basis to produce weapons, not on a scale. But as long as we have been able to maintain, and with science-based stockpile stewardship, a safe, effective deterrent—safe, secure, effective deterrent, there’s not a rationale and an argument for large scale, on the order of a thousand nuclear weapons a year. Those days are, I would say, long gone.

KROENIG: OK. Let’s go back to our members. And Andrew Pierre.

Q: Andrew Pierre.

KROENIG: Wait for the microphone, please.

Q: Whoops. Sorry. Andrew Pierre, Global Insights.

If one assumes, for the moment, that the primary nuclear issue of this decade and coming decades is the risk of nuclear proliferation—I’m thinking of countries like Japan, South Korea, and there are others—to what extent would the strengthening of deterrence and the spending of—and the increased sophistication of nuclear weapons in the two major nuclear powers enhance or detract from preventing nuclear proliferation? How important is the extended deterrence to what we’re discussing today?

KROENIG: Well, Bill and I were discussing this beforehand, so I know you have thoughts. Do you want to—do you want to begin?

SCHNEIDER: Yes. Well, thank you, Andrew. That’s a very pertinent question that’s certainly on the minds of many people now. In the—between 1945 and the end of the Cold War in 1991 24 countries embarked on nuclear weapons programs, but only four retained them. And for the most part, because the U.S. primacy in nuclear weapons convinced them that that was not a constructive answer to their security needs. The concern that I have—and my evidence is only anecdotal; it’s not based on a survey—but in speaking with leadership, individuals in Japan and Korea, they are asking these hard questions.

Now, if China decides to use the DF-26, which is a dual-capable conventional and nuclear ballistic missile, on Japan, would the United States respond with a nuclear attack against China if the U.S. was not attacked? The concern that the Japanese have is that we would probably not do that. And if they come to believe that as a nation, that’s a recipe for inviting the acquisition of nuclear weapons, the way it has—a similar response has emerged in Korea. So I think the best guarantee of reducing the incentives to acquire nuclear weapons by friendly states is to maintain the integrity and effectiveness of the U.S. deterrent.

KROENIG: Frank and Joan, any thoughts on whether our nuclear modernization encourages proliferation or dissuades it?

KLOTZ: Well, I don’t think it encourages proliferation. I think to the extent that we maintain a safe, secure, effective, reliable deterrent is extraordinarily important to those allies—whether they’re in NATO or in the Pacific—which rely upon the extended deterrence which we offer through our alliance guarantees to those countries. It is a demonstration that we take this business seriously and that we are willing to make the investments which are necessary to maintain that capability.

ROHLFING: So I’ll offer the different perspective, which is that we have to take a step back and think about the long game and the broader game and proliferation in general. And, yes, we need to worry about reassuring our allies that we will be there for them, but we also have to worry about many countries that are not necessarily allies, and the unraveling of the Nonproliferation Treaty, which is under great stress right now because the nuclear weapons states are perceived as not delivering on their commitment to actually work toward disarmament in a serious way.

So this is the broader context in which we operate, and which our security is going to be affected over the long term. And what we say and what we do matters to the rest of the world. If we, as the sole remaining superpower, believe that we need to invest a trillion dollars to maintain an arsenal, when we have the strongest conventional military on Earth, how do we persuade countries like India and Pakistan and North Korea that they don’t need these weapons? That’s the conundrum.

KLOTZ: Yeah, but I mean—just to push back a little bit—I think in every case in which you study the programs by which those nations which have chosen to go nuclear since the—since 1945, it basically comes down to national determinations of the military and security needs that that country has based on region in which it leaves, the conflicts in which it’s involved, its capacity to develop the technology and the production infrastructure that’s necessary to pursue nuclear weapons. I mean, I think the prediction was made early in the Kennedy administration that, you know, in the next few decades 25 nations would go nuclear. And that has fortunately not been the case, with some very notable exceptions.

SCHNEIDER: We have a terrible record of providing incentives for countries to acquire nuclear weapons. We dishonored the Budapest Memorandum. When Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons in 1994, conditioned on the fact that their territorial integrity would be maintained. The U.S. was a signatory, as was Russia, as was Britain, and Ukraine. What happened? They get invaded and nothing happens. Libya gives up its nuclear weapons. A couple of years later they’re invaded by NATO. I mean, Belarus had returned hundreds of kilograms of highly enriched uranium to Russia. And they are treated as a pariah. Our diplomacy is creating incentives to acquire nuclear weapons, rather than disincentives. And we need to change that, in connection with a hard look at the whole question of how we deter and how that deterrence couples to the question of nonproliferation.

ROHLFING: Can I just add one other thought to that?

KROENIG: Briefly, because I think there are many other people who want to get in.

ROHLFING: Which is that, again, with the proliferation of states, we’re in a much less stable environment, which is increasingly hazardous and decreasingly effective in terms of the—you know, whether deterrence will hold, when you have states in these very unstable regions. And for us to expect that we can continue on this path indefinitely and that building more weapons, more lethal weapons, and the same thing with our adversary, without a catastrophe happening. I think that is a strategy of hope that’s not a good one.

KROENIG: Great. Let’s go back to the members. Barry Posen. And wait for the microphone, please.

Q: Hi. I’m Barry Posen. I direct the Security Studies Program at MIT, most of the time. And I happen to be on sabbatical so I’m at the Library of Congress this year, so I can come to these great meetings.

Safe, secure, effective—we can talk about this at length—but I’m interested in the effectiveness part of it, right? And I’m particularly interested in what the current administration’s definition of effectiveness is, because I think, as I listen to Mr. Schneider, his definition of effectiveness is quite expansive. What I’m hearing is he wants a capability to fire first, if necessary. He wants the capability to limit damage in a nuclear war to the United States. This is a nuclear—we used to call back in the day, nuclear war fight strategy, and it depends on us being willing to take the initiative. So I’d like to hear a little bit more about what effectiveness means in this day in age.

SCHNEIDER: Well, it’s a good question, because one of the things that has happened through this introduction is advanced technologies is the domain where the unique properties of nuclear weapons—extraordinary energy density, thermal output, and ionizing radiation, are much fewer than was the case in the—during the Cold War. So we actually need fewer nuclear weapons than we do in the Cold War. And I think that’s reflected in the substantial reduction in the number of nuclear weapons that we have. But for the smaller set of targets that can only be struck by a nuclear weapon, the effectiveness issue is whether or not they will effectively destroy the target without needless collateral damage.

KROENIG: Well, and the question was how the administration thinks about effectiveness. So I don’t know if you want to say something on that front.

KLOTZ: Well, I think the best way to put that, Barry, is, you know, the weapons will work the way they’re supposed to work when they’re expected to work. And they won’t work when they’re not supposed to work. (Laughter.)

Q: Let me say, as a minimalist—(laughter)—(off mic)—trillion dollars’ worth of—(off mic). I can’t—(off mic)—trillion dollars’ worth of—(off mic).

KROENIG: OK, great. Let’s go here.

Q: Seyom Brown, the American Security Project.

This follows on a bit of the immediately preceding exchange here, that started with Barry Posen’s comment. I’m going to offer a radical proposition. And that is that 75 percent of the projected $1 trillion over the next 30 years—over the next three decades—that 75 percent be devoted to strategic modernization. Strategic modernization of forces, however, that don’t have to carry nuclear warheads. The objective—what’s the objective of this?

The objective of going in that direction is to render nuclear weapons superfluous. They’re not superfluous now, but at least that is a planning objective. To render them superfluous, and therefore also to bridge the tremendous gap that exists between discussions like those we are having now and discussions that are going on with the humanitarian initiative. Can we devote ourselves to that objective of having this superpower, at least, develop capabilities that will maintain effective deterrence and war fighting if necessary, that doesn’t have to rely on nuclear weapons?

KROENIG: So I just want to make sure the panelists understand. You’re suggesting taking 75 percent that we’re planning to devote to the nuclear and devoting that instead to convention?

Q: Well, to strategic modernization—$750 billion over the next 30 years, yes.


SCHNEIDER: The fact that there may be a smaller number of targets that can only be serviced by nuclear weapons suggests that if we were to modernize the nuclear weapons complex so that instead of requiring 15 years or more to develop the device you had—to take an extreme and unrealistic example, but sort of a just in time thing—so you just produce the weapons you needed and you were able to attrite the size of the stockpile to match the target that you needed to service. That kind of a concept could be put into place if we were able to modernize the entire nuclear enterprise—the R&D and production complex—so we could just produce what we need. But we are stuck, as Frank said, with an ancient, decaying, and expensive nuclear enterprise to maintain. And that contributes to the difficulty of having nuclear weapons in the right ratio to all of the other capabilities we can bring to bear.

KROENIG: Frank or Joan, want to substitute conventional for nuclear?

KLOTZ: Well, I would only argue—I mean, there was a time in which nations strove mightily to maintain conventional parity, or even conventional superiority over their neighbors, or within the region, or even across internationally. And it was a very bloody period. And for the past 70 years, we have avoided—been able to avoid war between the major powers. And nuclear deterrence is not the only reason for that. But I would submit it was a very important part of that outcome.

So until we get to a world, as the president has said, where we’re free from nuclear dangers—which means an international environment in which nuclear weapons are no longer considered necessary by the nations which possess them—I think that we need to continue to maintain that deterrent that we have. Smaller than it was before, but still able to carry out the task that we’ve assigned to it.

KROENIG: Well, I think you get the last word, because unfortunately we’re out of time. I’d like to remind all participants that tonight’s meeting was on the record. Please join me in thanking this excellent panel of speakers for an enlightened discussion. (Applause.)


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