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The United States’ Nuclear Security Infrastructure Is Dangerously Old

Modernizing vital technologies will help ensure a reliable deterrent.

By , a non-proliferation and strategic trade professional, and , a naval submarine officer.
Researchers work on a nuclear testing project in 1974.
Researchers work on a nuclear testing project in 1974.
Researchers work on a nuclear testing project at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico in 1974. Atomic Energy Commission/Getty Images

The Biden administration’s 2021 announcement that it would begin drafting its nuclear posture review, amid continued economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, has reignited debate on the necessity of nuclear modernization and the accompanying investment of billions of dollars into the nuclear security enterprise (NSE). Many outside of a niche nuclear security community argue that U.S. President Joe Biden’s public commitment to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. defense strategy undermines the need for continued spending. Conversely, military officials point to rapidly advancing adversary capabilities in states like China and Russia as evidence that modernization is not only warranted but strategically necessary.

While the Biden administration considers whether a nuclear sea-launched cruise missile is militarily necessary or how modernization will impact global strategic stability, it is time for U.S. policymakers and the broader public to acknowledge that the United States needs a modern, responsive nuclear enterprise regardless of who occupies the White House.

The state of the NSE is bleak, as a quarter of the infrastructure is older than the United Nations. It includes a range of scientific and technical programs that concentrate not only on the security and safety of the United States’ own nuclear stockpile but on nonproliferation and threat reduction worldwide. Despite this, most of the attention and funding for U.S. nuclear deterrence has focused on the arms themselves, not the infrastructure that supports it. The push for NSE investment and modernization has been a consistent, bipartisan national security theme of the Obama, Trump, and Biden administrations, despite varying nuclear policy objectives. There has been a constant drumbeat of modernization discussions since 2015, when then-U.S. President Barack Obama backed a $348 billion investment in the nuclear weapons enterprise from 2015 to 2024—the largest such investment since the Cold War.

The Biden administration’s 2021 announcement that it would begin drafting its nuclear posture review, amid continued economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, has reignited debate on the necessity of nuclear modernization and the accompanying investment of billions of dollars into the nuclear security enterprise (NSE). Many outside of a niche nuclear security community argue that U.S. President Joe Biden’s public commitment to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. defense strategy undermines the need for continued spending. Conversely, military officials point to rapidly advancing adversary capabilities in states like China and Russia as evidence that modernization is not only warranted but strategically necessary.

While the Biden administration considers whether a nuclear sea-launched cruise missile is militarily necessary or how modernization will impact global strategic stability, it is time for U.S. policymakers and the broader public to acknowledge that the United States needs a modern, responsive nuclear enterprise regardless of who occupies the White House.

The state of the NSE is bleak, as a quarter of the infrastructure is older than the United Nations. It includes a range of scientific and technical programs that concentrate not only on the security and safety of the United States’ own nuclear stockpile but on nonproliferation and threat reduction worldwide. Despite this, most of the attention and funding for U.S. nuclear deterrence has focused on the arms themselves, not the infrastructure that supports it. The push for NSE investment and modernization has been a consistent, bipartisan national security theme of the Obama, Trump, and Biden administrations, despite varying nuclear policy objectives. There has been a constant drumbeat of modernization discussions since 2015, when then-U.S. President Barack Obama backed a $348 billion investment in the nuclear weapons enterprise from 2015 to 2024—the largest such investment since the Cold War.

Such funding was predicated on balancing modernization and U.S. arms control needs, emphasizing that these goals are not mutually exclusive. For the 2020-2021 budget, then-U.S. President Donald Trump increased the previous year’s budget request for NSE modernization by nearly 20 percent. Biden is slated to stay the course, with the administration receiving funding increases for modernization in the recently passed defense budget. While U.S. foreign-policy objectives and the global security environment have transformed dramatically in recent decades, investment and bipartisan support for the nuclear stockpile have remained constant.

So why do cynics in Congress, think tanks, and the U.S. public continue to oppose modernization despite both political parties’ evident support for the U.S. nuclear deterrent? The divide can be traced to arguments around delivery systems, such as ballistic missiles, cruises missiles, and bombers. Proponents of modernization cite rapidly expanding Russian and Chinese nuclear capabilities as a reason to maintain the weapons programs approved under the Trump administration, while opponents believe the focus should be on arms control, strategic stability, and funding for domestic issues. Much of the current debate is focused on the new Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent that is intended to replace the Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile, which has served as the land leg of U.S. nuclear deterrence since 1970. Cost is a central tenant of the deliberations, as the program is estimated to carry a $264-billion price tag over its lifetime.

Additionally, Biden faces the challenge of justifying such investments while remaining committed to reducing the role of nuclear weapons in the nuclear posture review. Additional friction can be found when considering the development of the submarine-launched cruise missile (SLCM) given its similar operational functionality to the Long-Range Standoff weapon—a nuclear-armed, air-launched cruise missile—and the potentially disruptive ramifications of the SLCM on global strategic stability.

Inevitably, these debates catch a third party in their crosshairs: the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), and with it, the nuclear infrastructure that underpins the United States’ entire nuclear stockpile and strategy. Public debate on modernization often oversimplifies the NNSA as a conduit for weapons funding rather than as an organization with a vast array of responsibilities outside weapons development and sustainment. This mindset has, historically, led to continued postponement of much-needed NSE investment and placed a wide array of organizational responsibilities at risk.

Despite long-standing bipartisan support and hefty budgets that favor modernization, NNSA infrastructure has atrophied, and much-needed investments that were necessary decades ago have been pushed into the future without concern for the strategic implications of such decisions. The signing of the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty, Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), and the fall of the Soviet Union collectively led to a reduction in the number of nuclear warheads in the U.S. arsenal from 19,008 warheads in 1991 to 13,708 warheads in 1992 and created a false sense of safety in the global security environment.

This perception of stability translated into a smaller political appetite for defense spending and a lack of recognition for the many roles the United States’ NSE plays in the nation’s foreign-policy objectives. As a result, the decision to defund the enterprise leaves the NNSA today with half of its facilities over 40 years old. . This inadequacy again spills into other areas of concern by impacting the U.S. government’s ability to operate in the realms of arms control, threat reduction, naval nuclear propulsion, nonproliferation, assessment of foreign nuclear weapons programs, nuclear counterterrorism, and emergency response. Consequently, the United States has difficulty responding to unforeseen developments in the strategic environment, such as China’s rapid development of hypersonic missile systems or the continued expansion of North Korea’s nuclear capabilities. The global security environment’s growing complexity makes it more important than ever that the NSE receives sustained, long-term funding to continue fulfilling the U.S. government’s policy objectives.

Although nuclear weapons are contentious, the NNSA services a whole host of bipartisan missions beyond the manufacturing of nuclear warheads. Indeed, the agency is entrusted to maintain the United States’ nuclear stockpile, but the underlying NSE is also key to overseeing and maintaining a plethora of other national security objectives. One example is the nuclear propulsion systems of U.S. nuclear submarines and aircraft carriers. The technical and scientific capabilities of its national laboratories are the reason the U.S. government can ensure its stockpile is safely secured and effective without reverting to underground nuclear testing. The NNSA’s unique research, development, testing, and evaluation capabilities support the nuclear deterrent, but they also bolster the organization’s nonproliferation, arms control, and counterterrorism goals.

For instance, this scientific expertise has been leveraged to support the formation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action; to ensure the U.S. government and other nations are in compliance with the terms of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty; and to maintain the verifiability of arms control agreements, such as New START. This broad portfolio means the NSE’s scientific and technological infrastructure will remain a central pillar of potential future arms control agreements with Russia and China as well as of strategic engagements with states such as Iran and North Korea. Additionally, there are myriad programs aimed at securing loose sources of radioactive materials and limiting smuggling—ultimately curbing availability to bad actors. In essence, the NSE plays a role in fulfilling a wide array of bipartisan efforts.

The NNSA’s infrastructure is the lynchpin of a broad range of security and foreign-policy objectives. Although the composition of the U.S. nuclear stockpile remains controversial, investment in the NSE should not be. A modern, reliable nuclear enterprise ensures the U.S. nuclear deterrent remains credible while also providing the U.S. government with the broadest variety of possible policy options in future arms control negotiations.

Austin Wright is a non-proliferation and strategic trade professional, specializing in trans-Atlantic security and export controls.

Andrea Howard is a naval submarine officer and a 2015 Marshall scholar, focusing on the nexus of security, technology, and diplomacy in weapons of mass destruction policy.

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