U.S. officers warn outdated strategic forces won’t deter China ‘breakout’

FPI / June 1, 2022


The Pentagon risks losing a 50-plus year strategic advantage in deterring Russia and China if it fails to replace missiles, bombers, and submarines that are outdated, U.S. defense officials say.

Minuteman III nuclear missiles will be replaced by the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent, which won’t enter service until 2029. Here, Airmen maintain a 50-year-old Minuteman III at the F.E. Warren Air Force Base missile complex in Wyoming. / Air Force photo by Senior Airman Abbigayle Williams

Replacing the outdated assets and upgrading nuclear warheads are of the utmost urgency to deter the growing nuclear threats from China, Russia, and North Korea, the officials say.

“We don’t have any margin left to delay programs,” Air Force Lt. Gen. James C. Dawkins Jr., the deputy chief of staff for Strategic Deterrence and Nuclear Integration at the Pentagon, said at a recent congressional hearing.

For the first time in its history the United States is facing two nuclear-armed adversaries, China and Russia, Dawkins testified during a May 17 hearing of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces.

Chinese forces will have at least 1,000 warheads by 2030 and are modernizing and expanding a nuclear triad of missiles, bombers and submarines, including three new ICBM fields in western China.

“The PRC’s nuclear breakout is deeply concerning,” Gen. Dawkins said, referring to the People’s Republic of China. “These capabilities will embolden Chinese leaders to leverage their nuclear forces to achieve Chinese political objectives, such as coercing other states — including U.S. allies — or threatening U.S. assets and interests across Asia and the Pacific.”

The buildup is unconstrained by any arms control agreement, and “none are expected to be negotiated anytime in the near future,” Dawkins said.

“Failure to adapt to a changing world is not an option; every operational plan and capability in the Department of Defense rests on the foundation of strategic nuclear deterrence. The stakes could not be higher,” Dawkins said.

The Air Force is replacing its entire Minuteman III ICBM force that is over 56 years old with a new missile called the LGM-35A Sentinel missiles. The first Sentinels will be deployed in 2027 with full deployment by 2036, security correspondent Bill Gertz noted in a Washington Times report.

The Sentinel will be armed with older W87, 300-kiloton yield warheads until an upgraded W87-1 warhead is added in the future. The newer warhead has been delayed because of limited production facilities for warhead pits.

New B-21 Raider bombers will be deployed “in the very near future,” according to Gen. Dawkins, who said the bombers will be armed with a new long-range, stand-off missile that will replace aging nuclear-tipped air-launched cruise missiles.

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