By Cheryl Pellerin
DoD News, Defense Media Activity
WASHINGTON, June 25, 2015 – Ongoing nuclear upgrades by Russia, China and North Korea make it critical for the United States to maintain a strong nuclear deterrent force now and far into the future, Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work told a House panel this morning.
Work testified before the House Armed Services Committee during a hearing on nuclear deterrence in the 21st century. Joining him was Navy Adm. James A. Winnefeld Jr., vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Work said a nuclear attack is the only existential threat to the nation and that the fundamental role of U.S. nuclear weapons is to deter such an occurrence.
“While we seek a world without nuclear weapons, we face the hard reality that Russia and China are rapidly modernizing their already-capable nuclear arsenals, and North Korea continues to develop nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them against the continental United States,” he said.
“A strong nuclear deterrent force will remain critical to our national security for the foreseeable future,” Work added.
Given the importance of nuclear weapons and a volatile 21st century national security environment, President Barack Obama directed the Defense Department to maintain a safe, secure and reliable triad of strategic nuclear delivery systems while adjusting force levels to the New START treaty, the deputy defense secretary said.
“This is the highest priority for the Department of Defense,” he added.
On the continuing importance of U.S. nuclear deterrent forces for the nation and its allies and partners, Work outlined nuclear activities taking place in Russia, China and North Korea.
“As members of this committee know, senior Russian officials continue to make irresponsible statements regarding Russia’s nuclear forces, and we assess that they are doing it to intimidate our allies and us. These have failed. If anything, they have strengthened the NATO alliance solidarity,” Work told the panel.
Moscow continues to violate the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and DoD’s goal is to return that nation to compliance and preserve the treaty’s viability, the deputy secretary said.
Under no circumstances, Work added, will the United States allow Moscow “to gain significant military advantage through INF violations.”
Work added, “We are developing and analyzing response options for the president and we're consulting with our allies on the best way forward here.”
In China, the People’s Liberation Army is placing multiple warheads on its intercontinental ballistic missiles, expanding its mobile ICBM force, and continuing to pursue a sea-based element for its nuclear forces, Work said.
But, he added, “we assess that this modernization program is designed to ensure they have a second-strike capability and not to seek quantitative nuclear parity with the United States or Russia.”
North Korea continues to expand its nuclear weapons and missile programs, the deputy secretary said, and in response the United States continues to improve its national missile defenses and conventional counter-force options.
“Our current plans will keep us ahead of North Korean capabilities in our estimation,” Work said.
In his testimony, Winnefeld said that tending to the health of the nuclear deterrent force “is the most important that thing we do.”
This is principally accomplished, the vice chairman said, through the long-proven triad, a combination of forward-deployed weapons and delivery platforms in Europe, and the ability to rapidly do the same in the Pacific.
Three factors contribute to concern for the nuclear deterrent’s future health, Winnefeld told the panel, beginning with the need to maintain a reliable and capable deterrent, including a triad, for as long as nuclear weapons exist.
Second, he added, all three legs of the deterrent, its supporting command and control structure, and many of its weapons are coming due for recapitalization.
“The fact is that systems age and need to be refreshed, modernized or replaced,” Winnefeld said.
“Russia is going through this exact same experience now,” he added, “but the unfortunate coincident timing for us … in the coming years presents a large bill over a relatively short period of time.”
The third concern is that all these things are happening at a time when defense resources are decreasing he said.
“As it stands,” Winnefeld said, “any remaining margin we have for investing in our nuclear deterrent has been steadily whittled away as we’ve pushed investments further and further into the future.”
He added, “The fact is there is no slack left in the system. We will need stable, long-term funding to recapitalize this most important element of what we do.”
Work told the panel that the choice for the nation is not between keeping or modifying the nuclear force.
“The choice right now is modernizing or losing deterrent capability in the 2020s and 2030s,” he said. “That's the stark choice we're faced with.”