HONOLULU – Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton's apparent skepticism of a wide-ranging nuclear weapons modernization plan, including a new cruise missile, puts the future of America's nuclear posture in question.
According to a New York Times report released Thursday, Clinton told an audience in a February fundraiser that she would turn a critical eye to the nuclear modernization plans of the Obama administration.
The news came out the same week that Secretary of Defense Ash Carter took a cross-country trip to stump for the broad modernization plan that also includes new bombers, submarine and ICBMs, along with modernized warheads and a command and control structure.
"The last thing we need are sophisticated cruise missiles that are nuclear armed," Clinton reportedly said, adding she "certainly would be inclined" to cancel the Long Range Standoff (LRSO) weapon program, which seeks to replace the US stockpile of nuclear cruise missiles with a modern weapon.
"This is going to be a big issue," the times quoted Clinton as saying. "It’s not just the nuclear-tipped cruise missile. There’s a lot of other money we’re taking about to go into refurbishing and modernization."
In the fight over nuclear modernization, the LRSO has become target number one in the nonproliferation community. Congressional democrats – including Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, a close Clinton ally – have attempted to derail the program’s funding, arguing that the weapon is an unclear cost given existing conventional weapons and other nuclear options.
But the Pentagon has steadfastly maintained it requires the LRSO in order to provide options for a future president. Speaking at least week’s Air Force Association conference outside Washington, Gen. Robin Rand, head of Air Force Global Strike Command, defended the need for the LRSO.
"The deterrent value of it; the options that it gives the president," Rand responded when asked why the weapon was needed. "The ability not to penetrate enemy airspace, not to fly directly to the target. I don’t believe we should put 100 percent of our eggs all in one basket and solely rely on stealth, so this gives you a long-range strike capability."
Carter defended the need to modernize more broadly in comments Monday at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota, where he appeared in front of a B-52 loaded up with nuclear-capable cruise missiles.
"If we don’t replace these systems, quite simply they will age even more, and become unsafe, unreliable, and ineffective. The fact is, most of our nuclear weapon delivery systems have already been extended decades beyond their original expected service lives," Carter said. "So it’s not a choice between replacing these platforms or keeping them … 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."
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.