Why the US needs to spend $450 billion on nuclear modernisation

Since the US developed, tested, and eventually used nukes, nuclear weapons have been the hallmark of a US deterrence strategy that has seen seven decades of relative peace settle over the globe.

Today, the US relies on a the “nuclear triad” for deterrence, which means they can launch nuclear missiles from silos based on land, submarines based in the sea, and bombers flying in the sky.

But that triad is under attack. The argument, mainly emanating from democrats in the House and Senate, is that we should not waste billions on weapons systems we’re likely to never use. However, to never have to use these weapons is the best-case scenario, and it is in fact the entire point of the effort.

Each leg of the triad offers it’s own unique advantages, and all three of these areas are desperately in need of modernisation, even if it costs the US $450 billion.

When a nuclear weapon is modernised, it’s the delivery platform that changes, not the warhead itself. The US no longer makes nuclear warheads, and it has been a long trumpeted goal of the Obama administration to move towards disarmament with the distant goal of deterring nuclear attacks on the US or on allies being the sole purpose of the US’s nuclear arsenal.

Land based silos scattered across the US provide fixed locations from which the US can mount a nuclear attack. The clear benefit of these bases comes from their situation underground. Even a nuclear attack on one or all of the known sites won’t render them useless. They are the fastest way the president can deploy nuclear weapons, and as they are spread out, they would be very hard for an adversary to neutralise all at once. When people talk about the president having “a finger on the button,” these are the missiles that button fires.

Currently the silos house Minutemen III intercontinental ballistic missiles that were devised in 1982. These weapons are capable and well-maintained, but they’re limited by their aged technology, specifically the targeting system.

B52Tech Sgt. Robert Horstman/US Air ForceThe B-52 with all its ammunition.

Air-launched nuclear missiles can be fired from bombers or fighters, and provide the most forward-deployable leg of the triad. These air-launched cruise missiles have an incredible range of over 1,000 miles which is hugely important for penetrating contested enemy air spaces. The B-52 can carry 20 such cruise missiles, which can be fired in an overwhelming salvo to neutralise enemy air defences.

But unlike the ground-based ICBMs, or submarines deep under the sea, the nuclear armed planes provide a showy kind of deterrence. Moving a B-52 to a region, as the US recently has in the Baltics and the Pacific, puts the entire area on notice that the US has laid a powerful chess piece in striking range.

Again, the new missiles needed to modernise the airborne leg of the triad would incorporate modern technology and targeting that would make them harder to see and shoot down. However, even if a cruise missile is shot down, it’s infinitely better than the loss of a pilot and a bomber.

U.S. Navy IllustrationArtist’s rendering of an Ohio-class submarine firing missiles.

The final leg of the triad are ballistic-class nuclear submarines. Situated in hidden locations in oceans throughout the world, these submarines are the ultimate check against nuclear strikes. As they are incredibly difficult to track and destroy, a ballistic-missile submarine provides the US with the chance to launch a nuclear counter-attack.

Today’s Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines are undetectable in the water, but that could change as technology rapidly develops and cyber espionage makes sure that no secret is safe. So, the US has commissioned the new Columbia-class submarine to protect the US’s important deterrence capability. Improvements to the trident missiles employed by these submarines, first deployed in 1990, are also budgeted for the near future.

The days when the US could fly a propeller-driven bomber over enemy territory, and simply drop a nuclear-armed unguided bomb onto a city are long gone and simply not coming back.

Understanding the importance of nuclear deterrence is counterintuitive, as these weapons of mass destruction actually serve as a kind of insurance policy on peace and the continued existence of humanity as we know it on earth. And not to downplay the US’s desperate need for infrastructure and other worthy projects, but if the price for nuclear deterrence comes out to $450 billion, out of a $4 trillion yearly budget, then relative peace on earth is worth it.

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