WASHINGTON ― A congressionally mandated commission on Thursday released its final report on the U.S. nuclear posture, recommending an increase in additional assets as China rapidly expands its own arsenal.
At the same time, the commission found the Pentagon and Energy Department are lagging behind their modernization goals, raising questions about the ability to develop additional nuclear assets.
Republicans seized on the report to call for more aggressive nuclear modernization, including additional investments in an industrial base that’s struggling to keep pace with the tight timelines needed to implement current strategic objectives.
House Armed Services Committee Mike Rogers, R-Ala., endorsed the report’s findings in a statement calling it “a wakeup call for our strategic posture.”
“For the first time in history, the United States must deter two near-peer nuclear adversaries at the same time,” said Rogers. “The results of their report detailed the gravity of the situation we face and emphasized that the current trajectory of the U.S. nuclear deterrent is insufficient to deter the looming Chinese and Russian threat.”
Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi, the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee, called the report “a stark reminder of the significant work needed to expand our nuclear submarine industrial base to increase production and reduce repair time.”
He reiterated his calls for a defense supplemental spending package to bypass the $886 billion security funding caps laid out in the May debt ceiling agreement while growing the military budget annually beyond inflation.
“It is essential that Congress move forward quickly with a plan to provide our military with the resources necessary to restore our nuclear deterrent,” said Wicker, in a statement.
Congress established the Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States to examine the U.S. nuclear capability as part of the fiscal 2022 defense policy bill. The commission’s report identified capabilities beyond existing programs needed to accelerate and enhance nuclear modernization efforts.
“The current modernization program should be supplemented to ensure U.S. nuclear strategy remains effective in a two-nuclear-peer environment,” it said.
The report states that current modernization programs were developed under the 2010 security environment mainly with Russia on mind and China as a “lesser-included case.”
“The aggressive foreign policies of China and Russia, the extent of their nuclear modernization, and the possibility of conflict with China and Russia were not foreseen,” said the report. It assessed that “the risk of a major nuclear conflict remains low,” but the risk of a conventional military conflict with both countries has grown, thereby raising the possibility of a nuclear strike on the homeland.
The commission notes in its report that while it “did not conduct a cost analysis of our recommendations, it is obvious they will cost money.”
A July Congressional Budget Office report projects that nuclear modernization efforts will cost $756 billion over the next decade, and that excludes costs for the additional nuclear initiatives the commission would like the U.S. to pursue.
Specifically, the commission calls for “additional U.S. theater nuclear capabilities” in Europe and the Indo-Pacific, modernizing nuclear command and control capabilities and effectively employing emerging technology including hypersonics, quantum computing, generative AI and autonomous vehicles.
It also calls for plans to “re-convert” submarine-launched ballistic missile launchers and B-52 bombers that were rendered unable to deliver nuclear payloads under the New START treaty. Russia suspended its participation in that treaty, its last remaining nuclear arms control accord with Washington, last year. Moscow has also threatened to pull out of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, though it says it will only resume testing if the U.S. does. The U.S. Senate has never ratified the test ban treaty.
Additionally, the commission calls for uploading “some or all of the” unemployed warheads in U.S. inventory, deploying additional Sentinel Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles and long-range standoff weapons, increasing the planned number of B-21 bombers and upping the planned production of the Columbia-class ballistic missile submarines.
Industrial base failing to keep pace
The report also sounds the alarm about the industrial base’s failure to keep pace with nuclear modernization requirements.
For instance, the Navy is behind in its goal of constructing one Columbia-class submarine per year while maintaining the older Ohio-class vessels on top of trying to produce two Virginia-class conventional attack submarines per year, which use overlapping nuclear supply chains.
“The [White House’s Office of Management and Budget] as well as the commission are skeptical that the current infrastructure can simultaneously support conventional and nuclear sustainment, modernization, and construction as scheduled,” states the report. “The AUKUS agreement may place further stress on this capacity,” referring to the trilateral pact in which the U.S. and Britain will help transfer Virginia-class submarines to Australia.
To that end, the commission says the Defense Department should “establish or renovate a third shipyard dedicated to production of nuclear-powered vessels, with particular emphasis on nuclear-powered submarines.”
Wicker has held up key authorizations needed to implement AUKUS, demanding the Biden administration and Congress put more money into the submarine industrial base. The two authorizations Wicker is holding up would permit the transfer of two Virginia-class submarines to Australia and allow the Defense Department to accept Canberra’s $3 billion contribution in the submarine industrial base.
Bryant Harris is the Congress reporter for Defense News. He has covered U.S. foreign policy, national security, international affairs and politics in Washington since 2014. He has also written for Foreign Policy, Al-Monitor, Al Jazeera English and IPS News.