The U.S. must modernize its nuclear force to remain on-par with near-peer adversaries Russia and China, a top Air Force general said Friday.
Lt. Gen. Stephen “Seve” Wilson, the deputy commander of U.S. Strategic Command, said the U.S. has no choice but to modernize and update its nuclear force if it wants to continue deterring other nations.
“Broadly, our nation and our Department of Defense stopped thinking about deterrence in 1992,” Wilson said during a breakfast meeting hosted by the Air Force Association's Mitchell Institute in Washington, D.C. “We need a really credible and ready and resilient nuclear force; and we’re doing just that. The department is investing a lot of money across the five-year defense plan on our nuclear force.”
The Pentagon is facing a “bow wave” of nuclear modernization costs in the early 2020s, when experts expect much of the Defense Department’s budget will be taken up by replacing and upgrading air-, land- and sea-based nuclear capabilities.
Wilson argued that replacing existing equipment is a critical step in allowing the U.S. to maintain its nuclear deterrence. Russia is already working on building new intercontinental ballistic missiles and air-launched cruise missiles, and China isn’t far behind.
“They’re modernizing their forces,” he said. “Just last week [Russia] had another successful hypersonic glide vehicle test.”
The boost-glide technology is a way of allowing missiles to achieve hypersonic speeds — generally considered to be above Mach 5 — by sending the missile to the upper reaches of the atmosphere and essentially letting the warhead fall back to Earth. Such speeds could overcome most missile defense systems and cut down on a target’s reaction time. It’s a technology both Russian and China are researching.
“Speed matters. Speed complicates anything,” Wilson said, adding that he could see a role for similar technology as part of a U.S. deterrence plan. “Our adversaries are doing that because it complicates any kind of defense. As technology moves forward, I think that technology will become important. As adversaries build up capability, they do it to defeat our missile defenses. We’re going to pursue that same type of technology.”
Wilson said he’s also looking to the new B-21, which is expected to enter service sometime in the 2020s.
“Our B-2s and our B-52s are the most flexible leg of our triad. They also provide a really significant conventional capability,” he said. “Yet look at the B-52, it’s over 60 years old. And our younger B-2 is over 25 years old. So I’m really heartened and pleased to see the progress we’re making on a new bomber, the B-21. … What bombers bring in payload, range, mass, precision and persistence are unique capabilities.”
The general also noted that Navy's Ohio-class nuclear submarines will be more than 40 years old by the time of their planned retirement.
“Salt water, metallurgy, physics happens. We need to replace those subs,” he said.
It is a “remarkably and challenging complex world that we live in,” Wilson said, and that it’s only become more so in the past 24 months.
“In February of 2014, I was addressing the AFA group in Orlando,” he said. “I didn’t talk about Ukraine, I didn’t talk about Crimea, I didn’t talk about ISIS, I didn’t talk about Boko Haram, I didn’t talk about new islands in the South China Seas … I didn’t talk about Sony cyber attacks, I didn’t talk about OPM data breaches … I didn’t talk about North Korean nuclear tests … I didn’t talk about Ebola virus or Zika … I didn’t talk about Paris attacks, I didn’t talk about Brussels attacks … I didn’t talk about any of the enormous refugee crises or migration challenges going across Europe and the Middle East.”
“I didn’t talk about any of those because at the time none of that existed,” Wilson said.