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WASHINGTON — The upcoming costs for modernizing America’s nuclear arsenal require a new national dialogue about the strategic deterrent, the No. 2 uniformed officer at the Pentagon argued Thursday.

Gen. Paul Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spent a chunk of his appearance at a defense conference discussing the need to educate the public on why nuclear weapons remain relevant in order to secure funding for a coming wave of modernization costs.

“We have a bill to pay to modernize our nuclear force in all three legs of the triad. And we need to figure out how to do that and how to talk about it so that everybody understands why each leg of the triad is so important,” said Selva during the annual McAleese & Associates and Credit Suisse 2017 Defense Programs conference.

“As a nation, we have to have the discussion about how much we value that capability, why it is important, why it keeps us a great power and why each leg of the triad makes each of the other legs that much more credible,” he added. “Those are important questions we need to be able to ask and answer.”

In January 2015, the Congressional Budget Office estimated the nuclear arsenal will cost $348 billion to upgrade and maintain over the next decade, while an August 2015 study by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments found that upgrading and maintaining the US nuclear force posture will cost more than $700 billion over the next 25 years.

The heaviest costs of that budget bow wave hit in the mid 2020s — the same time that a number of conventional systems need to be upgraded as well. This has prompted top Pentagon leaders to sound the alarm that unless budget top lines are increased, tradeoffs will need to be made. And unlike in the past, when the need for a nuclear deterrent was largely accepted, the Pentagon will need to make a strong case to the public to sell paying that bill.

“In our history, every time that has happened, we have added a specific amount to the Defense Department’s top line to accommodate the modernization of our strategic nuclear arsenal,” Selva said of the coming costs. “That is a substantial bill for the nation to pay.

“If we are not starting that discussion right now, this instant, it will be too late,” he concluded. “We are already formulating the [Program Objective Memorandum] that defines the top line for the early ‘20s. We have to get this conversation to the forefront.”

Selva seemed to argue that the triad — the naval, air and ICBM nuclear delivery arms of the Pentagon — needs to take precedent over conventional systems, given its centrality to American global power projection.

“Our capacity to deter nuclear foes adds credibility to our conventional force, and if we are ever threatened by a nuclear foe who is our equal or our better, then our conventional force loses relevance quick,” Selva said.

As the general painted it, the issue of explaining the need for a nuclear triad ties into a broader cultural divide between those under 40 and those over 40 on national security issues as a whole.

Those under 40, he argued, generally do not see national security as a major discussion topic the way it is for an older generation.

“The debate about national security disappeared, in any real measure, from our national dialogue” post Desert Storm, he said. “9/11 made it worse, not better, because 9/11 made national security about counter terrorism … broad strategic conversation about the value of the military outside of that context was lost.”

Fixing that, and finding a way to inject substantive conversation about defense issues back into the everyday discourse, is a heavy load, Selva said.

“College professors have to say it’s important. High school teachers have to say it’s important. Clergy have to understand,” he said. “And how do you motivate them to have that conversation? I don’t know.”

Email: amehta@defensenews.com

Twitter: @AaronMehta

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