While it may be difficult to imagine given the destructive power they possess, nuclear weapons are a cornerstone of our national security. In fact, our possession of these weapons helps protect the United States and US allies around the world every single day by deterring our enemies.
Regrettably, our nuclear capabilities are facing a readiness crisis and we must act to ensure the United States deterrent remains credible.
Quite simply, it is imperative that we ensure our nuclear capabilities are rapidly deployable, flexible to meet varying scenarios, and able to penetrate sophisticated air defense systems. The land, air and sea legs of our nuclear triad each play a vital role in deterrence. The absence of one would create a gaping hole in our capabilities and invite increased aggression from both our near-peer competitors and rogue regimes.
Our nuclear capabilities shouldn’t be and in most cases are not a partisan issue. There is widespread agreement on the role they play in our national security. In fact, our past two secretaries of defense publicly highlighted their importance during their tenures. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joe Dunford describes it as “the most important requirement that we have in the department, which is to prevent a nuclear war against the United States.” President Obama himself confirmed their role in our national security when his 2010 Nuclear Posture Review deemed that we keep all three legs of the triad on alert.
However, our nuclear triad is aging, and with it goes our nuclear deterrence and a critical American role in the world. The programs we depend on to replace the bedrock of our national security are already showing signs of delay — due in large part to a failure of accountability within the Department of Defense, the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent program failed to meet “Milestone A.” Milestone A is a critical step, which opens the program for bidding from competitors and makes it a permanent program of record. We will use all measures at our disposal to ensure these milestones are met.
As members of the Senate Armed Services and Appropriations committees, we know firsthand the attention that must be given to ensure programs stay on a timeline. If we fail to hold those in the Pentagon accountable for missing Milestone A, we will only be encouraging the downfall of America’s most important program, on which we have silently depended since the end of Word War II. In short, it will be unilateral disarmament.
Due in large part to a lethargic bureaucracy and instability in the acquisition process, defense programs have a tendency to fall behind schedule — and this puts our national security at risk. One has to look no further than the F-35 program for evidence: After eight years it is $163 billion over budget and seven years behind schedule. Last year, the Ford-class aircraft carrier program was five years behind schedule and $2.3 billion over its initial cost. We refuse to allow our nuclear capabilities to travel this same path.
This decline in our nuclear capabilities coincides with a dangerous period around the world. North Korea claims to have executed a successful hydrogen bomb detonation. Iran chants “death to America” while receiving billions of US taxpayer dollars that will subsidize further nuclear activity. And let’s not forget the robust modernization efforts Russia, China, Pakistan and India are putting in to increase their nuclear portfolios.
Now is not the time for the American people, members of Congress, or those in the Pentagon to turn their attention away from a bedrock of peace and security in the world, the US nuclear deterrent. The United States simply cannot afford, and we will not allow, a delay in these vital systems. Taking a weak posture towards the delay in Milestone A only exacerbates the problem. We must take action to ensure our nuclear capabilities match the threats we face.
Sen. Tom Cotton is a Republican from Arkansas. Sen. Steve Daines is a Republican from Montana.