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The unintended effect of the Senate NDAA on the Air Force’s nuclear modernization

Missile DefenseAmerica’s military pre-eminence is contingent on our ability to achieve our national security objectives in space, and our access to space is guaranteed by a credible strategic nuclear deterrent. If the United States were to lose access to the RD-180 engines in the near term, before we have succeeded in achieving our own domestic launch capabilities, it could jeopardize both our access to space as well the credibility of the nuclear deterrent.

In a May 23 letter to Senator Bill Nelson, Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work stated, “If the Department were to lose, in the near term, access to the RD-180 engines, the cost impacts and disruption to launch schedules would be significant. To meet its statutory requirement of assured access to space, the Department would be forced to allocate missions to the Delta IV launch vehicle and the recently certified Falcon 9 launch vehicle. Competition will not be possible as the Delta IV is much more expensive. The Department has assessed that the cost increase associated with the increased use of Delta IV, which ranges from $1.5 billion up to $5 billion depending upon the underlying assumptions used and time period covered, would crowd out other important national security investments in the defense budget and could have the unintended consequence of delaying our ability to enable development of new domestic launch capabilities and services.“

As DSOD Work states, the current Senate Armed Services NDAA EELV language would cost the Air Force $1.5 -$5 billion.  DOD, much less the Air Force, lacks the flexibility to absorb this unnecessary cost increase without harming on-going modernization programs.  Historically, new start program are used as the bill-payers in such scenarios. If DoD is forced to maintain the Delta IV launch vehicle due to restrictions placed on the Atlas V, the Ground-based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) could be at the top of the cut list as strategic systems and new starts are always the bill payers.  Adding another mouth to feed at the Air Force’s funding trough, which already consists of F-35, bomber, tanker, etc. means new starts would be at the bottom of the list.  There is no documentation proving this is the case by common sense and deductive logic means this would be the obvious offset target.   Delaying GBSD would be especially troubling at this time, given that China and Russia are prioritizing and fully funding new nuclear delivery systems and capabilities, as well as systems to defeat our current systems.

Adding more concern, before we replace the Minuteman ICBMS, which were developed in the 1960s, we must provide continuous maintenance and constant upgrades to ensure their deterrent capability. This arsenal, which is already falling behind Russian and Chinese capabilities, would be even more susceptible to Russian and Chinese defensive capabilities as upgrades and modernization are delayed because of EELV language costs.

Our adversaries such as Russia, China, Iran and North Korea are modernizing, expanding, and building new nuclear capabilities at an accelerated pace.  The ICBM leg of the Triad provides unique, irreplaceable security for our country.  The only proven deterrent against nuclear aggression is a strong, capable, responsive nuclear capability. The United States must proceed with the GBSD program to modernize its land-based nuclear arsenal.  Delaying GBSD progress in order to pay the unnecessary cost of using the Delta IV in place of the Atlas V is bad for national security, bad for the tax-payer, and even worse for our ability to protect our nation.