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By Peter Huessy, President of Geo-Strategic Analysis, Potomac, Maryland

Nuclear modernization and arms control are often analyzed as if they were exclusive policy choices leading to different outcomes. Such a bifurcation of the nuclear debate can distort the way policy choices are portrayed to American officials.

Very often, arms control proposals are laid out as the antithesis of weapons acquisition, with a choice being put forward of either building more weapons by modernization or pursuing fewer weapons through arms control. To build more weapons is often described as engendering a “bad” arms race while pursuing arms reductions through arms control is often described as a “good”, leading to an end to arms racing.

To better grasp this history, we created a graphic illustration of arms control and modernization for the United States in a collaborate effort with SAIC and Geostrategic Analysis with support from OSD.

Nuclear Modernization

Between 1955 and projected through 2042, the United States will have gone through four cycles of nuclear modernization and concluded seven key nuclear arms control deals.

The Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations built and deployed the first nuclear Triad of Polaris sea-launched ballistic missile submarines, Atlas, Titan, and Minuteman land-based missiles and the B-52 strategic bomber.

This was followed by the Nixon-Ford-Carter modernization effort where MM III and Poseidon missiles emerged.

The next or third Triad modernization primarily took place during the Reagan and Bush administrations, with the deployment from 1981-1991 of the B1 and B2 bombers along with their respective cruise missiles, the Peacekeeper ICBM, the Ohio-class submarine, and the C-4/D-5 missiles.

The current or fourth modernization effort includes Columbia-class submarines, GBSD ICBMs, a B-21 strategic bomber and cruise missile, all to be deployed between 2029-2042.

U.S. Navy Columbia-class Ballistic Missile Submarine

An artist rendering of the future U.S. Navy Columbia-class ballistic missile submarines. The 12 submarines of the Columbia-class will replace the Ohio-class submarines which are reaching their maximum extended service life. It is planned that the construction of USS Columbia (SSBN-826) will begin in in fiscal year 2021, with delivery in fiscal year 2028, and being on patrol in 2031.

While the first three Triad modernizations were spaced within 13-15 years of each other, respectively, the current modernization effort is planned to be completed some 46 years since the mid-point of the previous modernization effort.

This “pause” in modernization has been described by USAF General Garret Harencak (ret), as a “procurement holiday from history.” It is why we have run out of more road down which to kick the modernization can.

Strategic Arms Control

What of strategic arms control? Strategic arms control talks got serious after the US announced in 1967 it would build a “thin” missile defense system to deter China. In 1969, immediately following the 1968 Presidential 1968, the Soviet General Secretary called President Nixon, arguing a ban on missile defenses (the ABM treaty) was critically important and could have a companion sweetener—a parallel nuclear “arms control” agreement (SALT) between the US and the Soviet Union.

Under the subsequent 1972 SALT and ABM deal, a five-fold increase in strategic arms to near the 12,000-warhead level was agreed to. But the Soviets got to kill US missile defenses. This contributed in the Soviet view to the growing coercive effect of their heavy, multiple-warhead ICBM force, what some American analysts would come to characterize as a growing “window of vulnerability.”

During the near decade after the SALT/ABM agreements, the US had difficulty in modernizing its nuclear forces. A suitable basing mode for the MX missile was not found; the B-1 bomber was continually terminated by the US Senate; and funding for the C-4 missile and the Ohio class submarines was serially cut and delayed, although thousands of warheads were added to the 1970 deployed Minuteman and 1971 deployed Poseidon missiles, accounting for the growth in the US nuclear arsenal.

Part of the reason behind Congressional reluctance to fully modernize our deterrent was the anti-defense carry over from the end of the Vietnam war, as well as the pursuit of détente and peaceful coexistence with the Soviets, policies that mitigated against funding a robust defense budget.

By the end of the decade, with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the fall of Iran, the switch of over a dozen nations into the Soviet orbit, Moscow believed the international correlation of forces was moving decidedly in Moscow’s direction.

On top of which, the US defense capability was in decline, often described as an emerging “ hollow” military, further weakening America’s ability to stand up to Soviet aggression. Not only did US nuclear modernization suffer but so did nuclear arms control. With the aforementioned invasion of Afghanistan, the US government pulled the pending SALT II treaty from consideration of the US Senate. The SALT II , while codifying the already planned build-up in nuclear warheads, would have placed some new limits on total missiles.

Modernization & Arms Control

In 1981, the Reagan administration jump started both nuclear modernization and arms control with a new construct. A series of National Security Defense Directives called for the full up modernization of the US strategic nuclear deterrent, including deployment of theater INF range missiles in Europe and Asia.

The administration also announced the elimination of all US and NATO approved INF range missiles if the Soviets would likewise eliminate their multiple thousands of SS-20 INF range missiles. On top of which the administration proposed a START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) agreement with the Soviets, that would reduce long-range strategic nuclear systems from near 12000 warheads to half that number or roughly 6000.

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A number of Congressional supporters called the administration’s idea a “build-down”—where the US would rebuild its deterrent while dramatically reducing its size. Coming at a time when the nuclear freeze was gaining ground, the administration proposal seized both the pro-arms control and pro-defense narrative. As history shows, the administration was successful, concluding the 1987 INF and 1991 START I agreements, both reversing the growth of nuclear armaments while also leading—generally unexpectedly—to the collapse of the Soviet empire and “the end of the Cold War.”

Unfortunately, despite this success, the two decades following the end of the Soviet Union were not used to the West’s best advantage. Under the magic spell of an “end of history” narrative, US nuclear and conventional capability declined. While the START I treaty was implemented, its follow-on START II-- that reduced nuclear weapons to 3500 warheads-- was deemed by Moscow as unacceptable. The post-Yeltsin Russian leadership killed START II because the treaty didn’t restrict all US missile defense work to the laboratory and it eliminated multiple warhead land-based missiles—on which Moscow relied heavily for its deterrent.


Russian President Boris Yeltsin, right, toasts U.S. President George H.W. Bush after signing the START II treaty in Moscow on January 3, 1993.

Subsequently, while the Moscow Treaty of 2002 reduced nuclear weapons further to 1700-2200, the subsequent global war against terrorism helped sidetracked defense modernization in general, and nuclear modernization in particular.

However, the US moved back on track in 2010. Senator Jon Kyl struck a deal with senior Obama administration officials—the US would build a robust nuclear Triad while cutting nuclear weapons, albeit more modestly from 2200 to 1550 warheads, a reduction of 30%.

Although Congress now considers nuclear arms control and modernization to go hand in hand, the formula initiated in the proposals of the Reagan administration and continued by both the Obama and Trump administration’s is not necessarily easily repeated. Although a number of arms groups have pushed for US unilateral reductions to one thousand warheads, a host of new factors requires a rethinking of what kind of arms control we should pursue.

While the nominal strategic nuclear force deployed by Russia is 1550 warheads, the special bomber counting rules and the technical ability of the Russian systems to carry far more warheads than allowed by the New START agreement gives the Russians a huge upload or hedge capability. On a day-to-day basis, Russia could easily surge and deploy three or four thousand or more strategic warheads.

This surge or break-out capability is compounded by the limits to the verification rules under New START, plus the continued deployment by the Russian of multiple additional thousands of what are termed theater nuclear forces, not now under any arms limits. By contrast the US has deployed only some 200 theater warheads--all in Europe.

Current Review

A new review of our nuclear posture is now underway—a process undertaken by every administration since the end of the Cold War. The current review has to take into account a myriad of factors, but those outlined here are some of the important ones.


Complicating the strategic landscape is the very robust build-up by the Chinese of their strategic nuclear forces, projected to be a doubling or tripling of their warheads over the current decade according to Admiral Charles Richard, the US commander of US Strategic Command. As other senior defense officials have cautioned, the Chinese modernization effort grows considerably greater over time as it is newly examined. For example, China is now constructing some 255 new missile silos, each with the ability to hold the 10-warhead long-range Chinese DF-41 ICBM.

Suspected Missile Silo Construction Sites in China

Researchers using commercial satellite images spotted 119 construction sites where they say China is building silos for intercontinental ballistic missiles. The image has been annotated to show site locations. (Planet/Center for Nonproliferation Studies)

All of which raises the question of whether it is a sound strategic decision for the US to again build-down while the Chinese are building up, especially in that the full dimensions of the Chinese nuclear force remain only known to the Chinese. In short, how can the US sign an agreement with China or Russia when the Chinese nuclear force structure about which we are negotiating remains hidden?

NATO & Adversaries

Further roadblocks to verifiable and sound arms control agreements also exist. The US has extensive nuclear umbrella responsibilities—the US nuclear deterrent guarantee extends to some 30 nations within NATO and also to a myriad allied nations in the Western Pacific. China and Russia have none of these responsibilities.

From the US perspective, the success of deterrence is if nuclear conflict does not break out-- or remains conventional in nature without escalation to the nuclear level or is terminated at the lowest level of conflict possible. Arms control should support that strategy.

However, Russia or China, unlike the US, view nuclear forces as instruments of coercion and blackmail—not in the service of classical deterrence but in the pursuit of aggression, against the Baltic nations or Taiwan, for example.

For the United States, successful conventional deterrence—where the US wins or deters a conventional conflict-- works only if the nuclear deterrent threshold is not broken. But our peer conventional competitors are nuclear armed. This challenge is considered by many US military leaders as the most important facing the US in securing credible and continued conventional deterrence.

Reducing our nuclear capability in the face of this challenge, even while strengthening conventional capabilities, is what some nuclear critics have proposed. But as Keith Payne of the National Institute of Public Policy argues, such a move would be an invitation for US adversaries to go to the nuclear level where they would have an advantage—especially should a conventional conflict turn against them, precisely the opposite of what the US deterrent is designed to effect.

Emerging Nuclear Capable Nations

A final dilemma is how the US should treat emerging nuclear capable nations such as North Korea, which is variously determined to have between 12-100 nuclear weapons, with the ability to deliver some number by land- based missile and perhaps now by sea. On top of which, as the Israeli seized cache of Iranian nuclear material has revealed, Iran had plans in 2003 to build and deploy a limited force of nuclear weapons, the extent to which still remains hidden. Unfortunately, Iran’s nuclear ambitions become unbounded even with a “JCPOA nuclear deal” as its provisions expire circa 2030.

China & Russia 

One hundred percent of Chinese and fifty-five percent of Russian nuclear forces remain unbounded by any current arms control agreement. Yet only five percent of US nuclear forces are unfettered, to say nothing of the emerging nuclear powers such as North Korea and Iran—both allied with China and Russia. Thus, seeking to trade further US nuclear reductions as the price to pay for continued Congressional funding for a much-required nuclear deterrent modernization, without which the US goes out of the nuclear business, puts arms control deals in the catbird seat. As HASC Chairman Smith wisely noted, making US modernization contingent on an arms control deal with Russia or China potentially puts Russia or China in charge of the nuclear portion of our defense budget.

Peter Huessy is Director of Strategic Deterrent Studies at the Mitchell Institute.