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WASHINGTON – The Air Force Secretary has asked lawmakers to consider funding a joint service "strategic deterrence" account that would pay for the Air Force’s legs of the nuclear triad – the B-21 bomber and the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent – as well as recapitalizing the Navy’s Ohio-class ballistic submarines.

“If [there] is a strategic deterrence fund that would help or benefit one leg of the triad, I would ask for consideration that all legs of the triad be included in such an approach,” Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said March 16 during a House Armed Services Committee hearing.

The Navy has long sought a sea-based strategic deterrence fund, a set-aside account separate from the service’s shipbuilding budget that would pay for the SSBN(X) Ohio Replacement Submarine program. Congress in 2015 created the account, called the National Sea-Based Strategic Deterrence Fund, but appropriators have not yet funded it.

Analysts have in the past year floated the idea of fencing funding for the long-range strike bomber, now called the B-21, much as the Navy has done for the Ohio submarines. But until now the Air Force has not publicly called on Congress to set up a separate fund for the bomber or the GBSD, the replacement for the legacy intercontinental ballistic missile.

James emphasized the necessity of all three legs of the nuclear triad during the March 16 hearing.

“Each leg of the triad is a little bit different aspect to that, so the ICBMs are considered responsive, the sea-launched are considered survivable, and the bombers of course are flexible and they also are survivable because of the dispersion,” James said.

She acknowledged the tradeoffs necessitated by the tight budget environment, but urged Congress to consider funding the B-21 and the GBSD through any separate “strategic deterrence” account.

James first suggested the Air Force would ask Congress for a separate fund to pay for the entire nuclear triad during a March 7 briefing at the Pentagon. She called for a national debate on the future of the country's nuclear force.

“If there is to be a fund for nuclear modernization, it seems to me appropriate that it be for all three legs of the triad and not just for one leg of the triad. So if indeed that is the approach that is selected, it seems to me that ought to be a joint fund,” James said March 7. “I think the key question, though, is where will the money come from? And this is where we’re simply going to have to have a national debate. . . . Are we or are we not going to modernize these forces? And if we are, we must have the appropriate resources to do it.”

If the Air Force is forced to fund its two legs of the nuclear triad within the existing toplines, the service will have to make further reductions to the force and conventional modernization, she stressed.

“If we have to live within the existing toplines, this is going to create problems because here we’re talking about how many of these choices that we’ve put forth in the budget are not popular. Well, if we suddenly had to modernize the entirety of our triad within our existing toplines, think of all the reductions that would have to occur,” she said.

Email: lseligman@defensenews.com

Twitter: @laraseligman

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