U.S. Emphasizes Need for Sea-Based Nuclear Capability for Second-Strike Assurance

May 23, 2024: The United States continues to stress the importance of maintaining all three legs of its nuclear triad, including the land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles and air-launched cruise missiles of the Air Force, and the Navy’s sea-based nuclear weapons, to ensure a reliable second-strike capability.

In the event of a first strike by adversaries, U.S. ground-based and air-launched systems might be compromised. However, the sea-based systems provide a crucial deterrent, guaranteeing the ability to retaliate. Navy Vice Adm. Johnny R. Wolfe Jr., director for strategic systems, highlighted the importance of this capability before the Senate Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee.

“The ever-present alert and patrol status of our sea-based force ensures that, if needed, they are survivable and can execute a second-strike, which is vital for deterrence,” Wolfe stated.

The Navy has made strides in modernizing its segment of the nuclear triad. Recent efforts include final demonstrations for Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines and establishing a new nuclear office for the sea-launched cruise missile (SLCM-N). This missile, capable of being launched from both surface ships and attack submarines, represents a significant advancement in naval nuclear capabilities.

However, Wolfe pointed out the challenges posed by an atrophied industrial base, emphasizing the need for substantial investments to rebuild capacity for concurrent nuclear modernization programs.

“Our primary goal is to maintain the current missile inventory and operational support for Ohio-class submarines until their retirement in the early 2040s,” Wolfe said. “We must also ensure a seamless transition to Columbia-class submarines.”

The Columbia-class submarines are set to replace the Ohio-class, which has been in service since the 1980s. Part of this transition involves adapting the Trident II D5LE missiles for use on the new submarines.

Wolfe also underscored the importance of international partnerships, particularly with the United Kingdom, which contributes to NATO and global stability through its independent nuclear deterrent.

“U.S. alliances and partnerships are a significant advantage,” Wolfe said. “We will continue to support and sustain our crucial relationship with the British.”

Modernizing the nuclear triad will require time, investment in personnel, infrastructure, and the industrial base. Wolfe emphasized the necessity of continued support from Congress to achieve these modernization goals and maintain a reliable sea-based strategic deterrent.

Air Force Gen. Thomas A. Bussiere, commander of Air Force Global Strike Command, also highlighted the urgent need for timely modernization of the nuclear triad. The command is focused on updating land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, bomber forces, nuclear command and control platforms, and associated weapons and facilities.

“We face the challenge of deterring two major nuclear-armed competitors, China and Russia, both with modern and diverse nuclear capabilities,” Bussiere said. “Additionally, threats from North Korea and Iran remain significant.”

The Department of Defense’s fiscal year 2025 budget request includes $49.2 billion for nuclear triad modernization, with investments directed towards the Columbia-class submarine, the B-21 bomber, and the Sentinel system for the ground-based nuclear forces.

Bussiere concluded by affirming the critical role of the nuclear deterrence mission in national defense strategy, essential for both the U.S. and its allies.–By C. Todd Lopez