What the nuclear triad is, why it matters

Vladimir Putin responds to reports of new U.S. nukes
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Story highlights

  • Kingston Reif: Obama administration's current nuclear weapons plans are unrealistic
  • GOP candidates should be prepared to explain how they would pay for modernization, he says

Kingston Reif is the director for Disarmament and Threat Reduction Policy at the Arms Control Association. You can follow him @KingstonAReif. The views expressed are his own.

(CNN)National security issues dominated Tuesday night's Republican presidential candidate debate. And while the recent terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino -- and the conflict with ISIS -- took center stage, the candidates also sparred on the under-the-radar issue of nuclear weapons policy. The question is whether any of the candidates fully understand quite how critical this subject is to America's security.

As former Defense Secretary William Perry recently warned, the United States and Russia are on the verge of a new nuclear arms race, and Washington is currently planning to spend roughly $1 trillion dollars on nuclear weapons over the next 30 years without any real national debate.
Kingston Reif
How did the candidates do on the issue Tuesday?
Debate panelist Hugh Hewitt asked Donald Trump and Sen. Marco Rubio how they would approach the stewardship of America's aging nuclear arsenal. Trump clearly had not done his homework on the subject, ending a rambling answer with "nuclear is just the power, the devastation is very important to me."
Rubio, meanwhile, said that all three legs of America's nuclear triad -- submarines, land-based missiles, and bombers --"are critical" and in need of modernization. Ironically, he recommended the same course of action that President Barack Obama is pursuing: namely, a multi-hundred-billion-dollar plan to rebuild all three legs of the triad and their associated warheads and supporting infrastructure.
While many Republicans believe that the Obama administration has allowed America's nuclear weapons to atrophy, the reality is that the administration has requested huge increases for nuclear weapons programs at the Defense and Energy Departments to sustain and modernize the arsenal.
For example, the administration's fiscal year 2016 request for nuclear weapons programs at the Energy Department is roughly $3.5 billion more than the Bush administration's final budget request. In fact, the GOP-led Congress has provided less funding for this program than requested by President Obama.
The reality is that the key issue is not so much that the Obama administration has spent too little on nuclear weapons, but that its current plans are unrealistic and would sustain an arsenal that U.S. military leaders have concluded is larger than necessary to deter a nuclear attack against America and its allies.
According to a Congressional Budget Office report in January, the direct costs of the administration's plans for nuclear forces will total about $350 billion between fiscal 2015 and fiscal 2024. And this is just the tip of the spending iceberg, as most of these modernization programs are still in the research and development phase. Over the next 30 years, the bill could add up to $1 trillion, according to three separate independent estimates.
Meanwhile, U.S. military leaders continue to warn that the United States faces a cash crunch in the near future when it comes to sustaining and modernizing nuclear forces. Pentagon Comptroller Michael McCord stated recently that the anticipated financial requirement for nuclear modernization "is the biggest acquisition problem that we don't know how to solve yet." By the mid-2020s, the cost of nuclear weapons will consume 7% of the entire defense budget, according to Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work.
Though no one knows for sure what the military budget will look like after the expiration of the Budget Control Act, it seems unlikely that there will be enough money to fund all of the military's nuclear and conventional modernization plans, especially during the decade of the 2020s when costs are expected to peak.
Prioritizing the nuclear mission could thus do serious damage to conventional capabilities and other national security programs. The Navy, for example, is fretting that without supplemental funding from outside its budget, the cost to develop and build the next generation ballistic missile submarine fleet will crater the rest of its shipbuilding budget.
Each U.S. president, with advice from the military, has evaluated what the role and size of the U.S. nuclear force should be to deter nuclear attack, and since the late-1960s, each president has determined that the size of the force can and should be reduced. As President Ronald Reagan famously said in 1985, "a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought."
Ultimately, though, no matter what one's perspective is on the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. national strategy -- and whether the current plan to rebuild a bloated U.S. arsenal is necessary or affordable -- the GOP candidates for president should at least be able to explain to the American people how the they propose to pay for the current modernization plans. And they should also be prepared to tell taxpayers why they should pay for more nuclear weapons than is required for deterrence, and how they would seek to reduce the danger to the United States posed by Russia's nuclear arsenal.
The American people are still awaiting answers to these questions. Let's hope they are answered in the coming months.