July 15, 2021

Liberal Democrats Target Nuclear Deterrence


  • The United States is working on a long overdue effort to modernize the nuclear triad, which is the foundation of our national security and a key protection for our allies. Failure of any of the modernization programs could spell trouble for the whole effort.
  • Over the last decade, countries like Russia and China developed new, modern nuclear delivery systems, while the U.S. nuclear arsenal continues to decay.
  • Liberal Democrats in Congress have already begun trying to reduce the amount of funding for Department of Defense and Department of Energy programs, derail efforts to restore U.S. capabilities for producing nuclear weapons, and reduce or eliminate our nuclear forces.  

President Biden has staked out a position on nuclear deterrence that is more radical than any past president on the issue. As vice president and on the campaign trail, he called for a “no first use” policy: that the U.S. should never be the first to use nuclear weapons in a conflict, it should only use them to respond to others’ use of the weapons.

His statements – along with the rapid move to extend the New START treaty and the potential cancellation of a new sea-launched cruise missile – are warning signs for the future of U.S. security. As America’s nuclear policy is shifting, China and Russia are modernizing quickly. For the first time in history, the U.S. will face two adversaries with nuclear capabilities similar to or greater than ours.


U.S. national security is based in large part on a credible and stable nuclear deterrent enabled by a strong triad: the ability to launch nuclear weapons from land, sea, or the air. At a recent Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, the head of U.S. Strategic Command laid out the issue plainly: “Every operational plan in the department and every other capability we possess rests on an assumption that strategic deterrence, and in particular nuclear deterrence, is holding. If that fails, nothing else in the Department of Defense works as planned.”

Maintaining this strategic deterrent depends on the safe, reliable, and effective operations of the triad. Unfortunately, the U.S. has deferred critical investments for decades, and many of the systems that make up our nuclear deterrent are nearly unsustainable. It is critical that we replace these antiquated forces with modernized warheads and new weapon systems. After decades of service, many of our nuclear deterrent systems are reaching the end of their service life. Without reliable replacements that are ready on schedule, the U.S. could lose critical capabilities at a time our adversaries and competitors develop their own new systems.

Russia and China also are challenging our deterrent capability with their own massive modernization programs. While the U.S. over the last decade reduced our nuclear stockpile under the New START treaty, Russia revitalized its nuclear arsenal and is currently developing new and highly destabilizing nuclear weapons. China is undergoing one of the most rapid nuclear force expansions ever seen, currently on pace to surpass earlier predictions of at least doubling its nuclear stockpile by the end of the decade. The Chinese tested more ballistic missiles in 2019 than the rest of the world combined and have begun exploring their own set of novel weapon systems. The country is well on its way to becoming a nuclear power to rival the U.S. and Russia.

Despite China’s obligations under Article VI of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, it refuses to meaningfully negotiate arms control. Bound by neither New START nor the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, it continues to develop new capabilities that threaten the idea of deterrence. Russia also violated international obligations like the INF Treaty.

Selected DOD and DOE Modernization Programs

Nuclear Modernization

The Department of Defense and the Department of Energy are jointly working on an ambitious effort to modernize the nuclear triad. It is a complicated and lengthy process that requires synchronization of projects and investment in key infrastructure. For each element of this effort, DOE is modernizing warheads and reestablishing basic nuclear weapon production capabilities while DOD is updating the weapons that will carry those warheads and the global communications system used to control those forces. Development of all the pieces must be tightly synchronized between DOD and DOE in order to meet military requirements.

Modernization does not just include traditional systems in the triad, but also new capabilities to respond to modern threats. The 2018 Nuclear Posture Review outlined a series of investments in new weapon systems like the Sea Launched Cruise Missile-Nuclear, known as SLCM-N, and the W76-2 warhead. Both of these would provide the U.S. with a low-yield tactical capability to respond to our adversaries. Without these tactical capabilities, an adversary like Russia might choose to launch a limited nuclear strike against one of our allies assuming the U.S. would not respond with a larger, more powerful weapon.

The National Nuclear Security Administration at DOE is responsible for warhead stockpile management. Sufficient, sustained funding for NNSA is absolutely necessary for modernization. Production capabilities and facilities, like those needed for plutonium pit production, need continued investment. Many of DOE’s facilities date back to the cold war, and the department considers more than half of the facilities to be in poor condition. Plutonium pits are critical parts of nuclear weapons. The current strategy, approved in 2018, is to produce 80 pits per year by 2030 so that the U.S. can maintain a safe and effective deterrent. If we don’t reach that level – a modest rate given the department used to produce more than 1,000 per year – the nuclear modernization effort could face cost increases and delays.


If anti-nuclear Democrats can target one part of the modernization process, they can throw sand in the gears of the entire effort. Cutting funding or delaying any number of programs could lead to cascading problems across the modernization portfolio, resulting in cost overruns or gaps in capability when replacement systems are delivered late.

Democrats from both the House and Senate have started to take aim at specific nuclear programs. Senators Ed Markey and Bernie Sanders introduced the Smarter Approaches to Nuclear Expenditures Act earlier this year. The bill and its House companion would cancel, reduce and defund programs at the NNSA, like pit production, and weapons systems at the DOD, like the new intercontinental ballistic missile and the Columbia class submarine. This could dangerously reduce our deterrent capability and deny DOE critical investment into warhead modernization and stewardship programs.

Democrats also are threatening SLCM-N, which would provide an important deterrent capability. Senator Chris Van Hollen introduced a bill to end the program completely. The Biden administration has begun to signal its willingness to abandon the missile and other modernization efforts. Faced with the administration’s preference for funding domestic social welfare programs at the expense of national defense, the Navy is preparing for future budgets in which it will be unable to afford all of its planned programs. The acting Navy secretary wrote in a memo earlier this month that funds to develop SLCM-N would be on the chopping block. Further changes to U.S. nuclear strategy and investment are expected when the Biden administration finally produces a Nuclear Posture Review, possibly next year.

It would tie in nicely with President Biden’s desire to implement a sole-purpose or “no first use policy and with the goal of many Democrats that the U.S. disarm unilaterally. Military leaders and other experts have warned that adopting an NFU or sole-purpose policy would be ill-advised.

It is unlikely that such moves by the United States will convince our adversaries to stop their modernization programs. It is far more likely that Democrats’ ideas would expand nuclear proliferation around the world and encourage our adversaries to act more aggressively, since they would have less reason to fear an effective U.S. response. Our allies would no longer rely on protection afforded by the U.S. nuclear umbrella and might start building their own nuclear weapons.

Issue Tag: National Security