Maintaining and modernizing America’s nuclear triad and the critical deterrence it provides our nation has long benefited from bipartisan support. Despite the challenging political divide, nuclear modernization presents an opportunity for lawmakers from both sides of the aisle to work together to make our nation safer, while failure to act leaves the United States and our allies extremely vulnerable.
America’s intercontinental ballistic missiles are the foundation of nuclear deterrence, but they have been in service since the 1970s — more than 40 years longer than intended — and must be modernized to remain effective.
The effort to modernize our ICBMs was first initiated under President Barack Obama. The Obama administration’s Nuclear Posture Review and subsequent analyses concluded that maintaining all three triad legs was in the United States’ national security interest, leading to modernization efforts.
And it continues to be a top priority of the Biden administration.
In 2017, then-Vice President Joe Biden said: “A nuclear deterrent has been the bedrock of our national defense since World War II. And so long as other countries possess nuclear weapons that could be used against us, we too must maintain a safe, secure, and effective nuclear arsenal to deter attacks against ourselves and our allies.”
And in March 2021, now-President Biden reiterated his position, noting that his administration remains committed to “ensuring our strategic deterrent remains safe, secure, and effective and that our extended deterrence commitments to our allies remain strong and credible.”
A safe, secure and effective nuclear arsenal requires modern systems that are capable of operating against 21st century threats. Our adversaries understand this: Russia and China have spent the last two decades modernizing their nuclear deterrent systems, including investing in new missiles, airplanes and submarines. Earlier this year, satellite images revealed new nuclear missile silo fields in China — the size and scope representing an unprecedented nuclear buildup. In the annual report on military and security developments in China, known as the “China Military Power Report,” the Department of Defense estimated that China will have 1,000 nuclear weapons by 2030.
The U.S. is modernizing its capabilities as well. During the 111th and 112th sessions of Congress, I served as chairman of the Strategic Forces Subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee, which has jurisdiction over Department of Defense and Department of Energy policy related to strategic deterrence, strategic stability, nuclear weapons and nonproliferation. During the modernization debate, I reached across the aisle to work with ranking member Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., to support these critical programs.
These programs were continued in the Trump administration and supported across multiple congresses. Bipartisanship will remain essential to modernization efforts in the U.S.
Continuing triad modernization programs is one of the Defense Department’s highest priorities. As then-Secretary of Defense Ash Carter observed in 2016, “most of our nuclear weapon delivery systems have already been extended decades beyond their original expected service lives. So it’s not a choice between replacing these platforms or keeping, it’s really a choice between replacing them or losing them. That would mean losing confidence in our ability to deter, which we can’t afford in today’s volatile security environment.”
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin also highlighted the essential nature of a robust nuclear deterrent capability: “Our nuclear deterrent has served a vital purpose in U.S. National Security Strategy for the past 70 years and continues to be an essential component of our strategy to preserve peace and stability by deterring aggression against the United States, our allies, and our partners.”
Polling conducted this fall by the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies shows that 91% of respondents, both Republicans and Democrats, believe that modernizing the United States’ nuclear deterrence system should be a priority for the Department of Defense. A full 80% say that replacing ICBMs with modern technology would make them feel safer. Those are strong numbers and demonstrate the bipartisan support for modernization.
In my book, “Death of the Senate,” I relay that the best Senate I served in was in 2001 when it was evenly divided 50-50, and then went to 51-49 when Sen. Jim Jeffords became an independent. As a former member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a concerned observer of the current state of play of global nuclear efforts and aspirations, my deepest hope is that a center will reemerge in the Senate to get the best possible results for the American people. Past, not-so-distant history shows it is possible.
Modernizing our nuclear triad is an opportunity to live up to the expectations of our constituents on a critically important issue that will help ensure a safer nation for future generations. I encourage my former colleagues in the Senate to find a partner across the aisle and work to get things done.
Former Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., is a partner at the Nebraska-based Heartland Strategy Group. He served on the Senate Armed Services Committee, chaired its Subcommittee on Strategic Forces and was a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee. Prior to that, he was Nebraska’s governor from 1990-1998.