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Pentagon Chief Visits ND Nuke Base     02/20 06:26

   MINOT AIR FORCE BASE, N.D. (AP) -- Defense Secretary Mark Esper used his 
first-ever visit to a nuclear missile field in frigid North Dakota to tout the 
Trump administration's multibillion-dollar plan for a top-to-bottom 
modernization of the nuclear arsenal. The costly project is necessary, he said, 
to keep up with Russia and outpace China.

   "Russia and China are both modernizing and expanding their nuclear 
arsenals," Esper told reporters, speaking alongside a behemoth B-52 bomber, 
which, along with Minuteman 3 intercontinental ballistic missiles and Navy 
ballistic missile submarines, represent the three "legs" of the U.S. nuclear 
triad.

   "All three legs of the triad need to be modernized, and it's critical if 
we're going to maintain a strategic deterrent --- that word is critical, we're 
trying to deter war --- ... we need to have the confidence that our triad and 
related systems are effective, that are safe, that are reliable, that are 
credible," he said Wednesday.

   The weapons also are expensive. President Donald Trump recently referred to 
the spending of billions of dollars on nuclear weaponry by the United States, 
Russia and China as "this craziness." His solution to controlling that expense 
is to get China and Russia to negotiate a new arms deal to replace a 
U.S.-Russia agreement, the New START treaty, that is due to expire one year 
from now unless extended.

   Trump's skepticism about nuclear weapons spending may be based on the 
eye-popping price tag. The Congressional Budget Office has estimated the first 
10 years of the modernization plan will cost nearly $500 billion, and that over 
a 30-year span the total would hit $1.2 trillion, including the cost of 
sustaining the current and future force.

   The key new weapons are a replacement for the current Minuteman 3 ICBM, a 
new-generation Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine fleet, and a new 
long-range bomber, dubbed the B-21 Raider, to replace the B-2 stealth bomber 
that is to be retired even as the older B-52 bomber remains. The B-52, which 
entered service in the 1960s, is getting new engines and other major upgrades.

   In his 2021 defense budget proposal to Congress, Trump requested $2.8 
billion for the Raider bomber and $1.5 billion for the new-generation ICBM.

   In all, the administration's proposed nuclear weapons budget for 2021 would 
approach $46 billion, divided between the Defense Department, which is 
responsible for operating the weapons, and the Energy Department, which 
maintains the warhead stockpile. That is more than the administration's 
proposed $41 billion for the State Department and U.S. Agency for International 
Development.

   Under current planning, the Pentagon alone would spend a combined $85 
billion in the coming five years for the new bomber, the new ICBM, the 
Columbia-class submarine and modernization of the communications and warning 
systems that support the whole system of nuclear command and control.

   Esper came to Minot to get an up-close look at the Minuteman 3 missile 
system and the B-52 bomber. Minot, situated in the northwest corner of North 
Dakota, is the only military base with both weapons systems. The rest of the 
B-52 fleet operates from Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, and the other 
Minuteman 3 bases are in Wyoming and Montana.

   Once called America's "ace in the hole," the ICBM is the card never played. 
None has ever been fired in anger. That is their intended role --- to dissuade 
any other nation from attacking with nuclear weapons for fear of a devastating 
U.S. retaliation.

   The ICBM is the most controversial segment of the nuclear force, in part 
based on an argument by critics that having the missiles constantly ready for 
launch on a moment's notice raises the risk of miscalculation leading to 
nuclear war. The Trump administration, however, reaffirmed its commitment to 
the ICBM force in a 2018 review.

   "The ICBM force is highly survivable against any but a large-scale nuclear 
attack," the review concluded. "To destroy U.S. ICBMs on the ground, an 
adversary would need to launch a precisely coordinated attack with hundreds of 
high-yield and accurate warheads. This is an insurmountable challenge for any 
potential adversary today, with the exception of Russia."

   Trump would like Russia and China to agree to negotiations leading to 
broader limits on nuclear weapons, thus saving the need to keep building new 
ones. But with China showing little or no interest in such talks, Trump is 
asking Congress for tens of billions of dollars to modernize the entire U.S. 
arsenal.

   An arms control deal with Moscow and Beijing could "stop this craziness," as 
Trump put it on Feb. 10. On the other hand, Trump has given no outward 
indication that he will take up Moscow's offer to extend the New START treaty, 
which is the only treaty governing the number of strategic nuclear weapons 
deployed by the United States and Russia.

   In an interview, Esper declined to say whether he favors extending New 
START, which could be done without renegotiating its terms.

   John Rood, who on Wednesday announced he is resigning as the Pentagon's top 
policy official at Trump's request, said in an Associated Press interview two 
weeks ago that he is skeptical of suggestions that Washington and Moscow extend 
New START, even for just one year, while also trying to get China into new 
negotiations.

   "That doesn't strike me as a wise negotiating approach," Rood said. "My 
experience is, you have to negotiate for what you really want the outcome to 
be. If you're addressing one party's concerns but not the other, I don't see 
how you get to that outcome."


(KR)

 
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