Reform

Stratcom Nominee: Nuclear Triad Modernization Must Continue

Oct. 24, 2019 | BY C. Todd Lopez

The nominee to be commander of U.S. Strategic Command told lawmakers at his confirmation hearing today that adoption of a "no first use" policy for nuclear weapons is a bad idea.

"My best military advice would be to not adopt a no first use policy," said Navy Vice Adm. Charles A. Richard, before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

A "no first use" policy is commitment by a nuclear power, such as the United States, to only use nuclear weapons in response to the use of such weapons by an enemy. Richard said the adoption of such a policy would impact its relationship with partner nations.

A missile launches into the sky.
Double Missiles
Two long-range ground-based interceptor missiles are launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., March 25, 2019, in the first salvo engagement test of a threat-representative intercontinental ballistic missile target.
Photo By: Lisa Simunaci, DOD
VIRIN: 190325-D-AD122-002Z

"I think adoption of a no first use policy would have a significant negative effect on our commitments to our allies," Richard told senators.

Richard was also clear that modernization needs to continue moving forward on the U.S. nuclear triad, which involves ground-based missiles — commonly referred to as intercontinental ballistic missiles — submarine-launched ballistic missiles and air-launched cruise missiles, dropped from bomber aircraft. In all three areas, the U.S. modernization effort is underway.

"We have delayed and life-extended the triad systems to the maximum extent possible," said Richard, who serves now as commander of Navy Submarine Forces. "What I mean by that is we are bumping into physics and engineering limits."

Richard said the Ohio-class submarine, which carries the Trident II D5 missile, for instance, was designed for 30 years of use. It's been in service now for 42 years.

Submarine at sea
Sea Submarine
The Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine USS Louisiana transits the Hood Canal in Puget Sound, Wash., Oct. 15, 2017, as it returns to its homeport following a strategic deterrent patrol.
Photo By: Navy Lt. Cmdr. Michael Smith
VIRIN: 171015-N-TC277-269C

"[That's] a great credit to the people that put it together," Richard said. "There are only so many times you can take a high-strength piece of steel tubing, subject it to the great pressures of submergence, cycle it by taking that off, to the point where you just don't want to get in the tube anymore."

Richard said a similar lack of confidence is in other systems that make up the triad.

Right now, he said, it's expected the follow-on to the Ohio-class submarine, the Columbia class, would enter service in 2031.

Recapitalization of the nuclear triad, Richard said, is needed, worth the investment and doable.

"That's only 3.5% of the defense budget on top of the 3.5% we spend to maintain the system that we have," he said. "That defense budget is itself a fraction of the discretionary budget of this nation ... that's what buys our deterrence and defense against the only existential threat this nation faces. I think that is a good investment, and in the words of the former secretary of defense, [James] Mattis, this nation can afford survival."

A civilian and several uniformed military personnel hold a conversation inside the tightly confined space of a submarine.
Sub Visit
Defense Secretary Dr. Mark T. Esper visits the USS Boise attack submarine in Norfolk, Va., Sept. 25, 2019. Esper is with the commander of submarine forces, Vice Adm. Charles A. Richard.
Photo By: Lisa Ferdinando, DOD
VIRIN: 190925-D-BN624-0279

If confirmed, Richard said, he pledges to work closely with the Senate Armed Services Committee and with congress regarding U.S. strategic security challenges.

"I firmly believe that open, honest and timely communications will be necessary to address these challenges," he said. "With the return to great power competition ... we must never lose sight of the fundamental nature and importance of our nation's strategic forces, a powerful ready triad remains the most effective way to deter adversaries from conducting attacks against the U.S. and our allies."

If confirmed, Richard would also be promoted to the rank of admiral.