SHREVEPORT – Rust to obsolescence or modernize to deter.

Peter Huessy, a defense and national security analyst for more than 50 years, delivered that line toward the end of the 25th annual Nuclear Triad Symposium at LSUS on June 20.

That message underlined the entire symposium, which evaluated the United States’ positioning in the nuclear world with a conventional conflict raging in Ukraine against Russia with the possibility of future conflict with China.

While the United States has maintained its nuclear arsenal in compliance with the New Start Treaty signed in 2010, Russia has abandoned that treaty designed to decrease the number of warheads in both country’s active stockpile.

Vladimir Putin’s visit to North Korea earlier this month that resulted in a mutual defense pact sends signals of Russia’s apparent willingness to supply North Korea with weapons and potentially boosting Kim Jong Un’s nuclear program with submarine and ballistic missile technology.

Huessy, a host of nuclear deterrent experts, and high-ranking members of the American Air Force and Navy, said the U.S. needs to modernize its nuclear arsenal with the possibility of expanding its stockpile to counter Russia and China nuclear expansion.

The Triad, which consists of America’s three legs of its nuclear arsenal (land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, bombers capable of firing nuclear warheads, and submarines with nuclear missile capabilities).

The command of the land and air Triad legs are under the Air Force Global Strike Command, housed at Barksdale Air Force Base.

Thursday’s symposium, which attracted nearly 200 local, regional and national defense industry members, was the third hosted at LSUS, which offers an environment to share unclassified information to defense industry business leaders as well as the general public.


Losing the nuclear numbers game

With Russia no longer adhering to the New Start Treaty, which included inspections of nuclear facilities, Chris Yeaw said the Putin government has already expanded well past the treaty’s allowable number of nuclear warheads.

China, a relatively new player in the nuclear realm, is also rapidly expanding its ICBM missile fields with current projections of surpassing the U.S. in number of nuclear armaments in the next decade. Russia could have as many as double the U.S. current stockpile of about 2,000 operationally relevant warheads by 2034.

Yeaw, an associate executive director for strategic deterrence and nuclear programs at the National Strategic Research Institute, said the United States, which doesn’t have plans to expand its nuclear stockpile, has a decision to make.

“We’re at an inflection point in nuclear weapons and in geopolitics – it’s a unique point in our history,” Yeaw said. “While Russia and China are not allies, they are aligned on the world stage.

“(After World War II), our goal for our nuclear program was to have a deterrent that was second to none. We could be No. 3 by 2034.”

One common image of nuclear war is one country pushes a red button to launch all of its nuclear missiles, then the other country launches its entire stock, resulting in mass death and a nuclear winter that ends mankind.

But a much more likely scenario – if nuclear war were to take place at all – is the use of low or ultra-low yield nuclear warheads in a conflict in the Indo-Pacific.

While America’s conventional military might and the quality of the systems and platforms to deliver nuclear missiles are still unrivaled, the one advantage adversaries like Russia and China could perceive to have is in a nuclear conflict in the Indo-Pacific theater.

“The United States doesn’t have any nuclear weapons in that theater,” said Adam Lowther, head of research at the National Institute for Deterrence Studies. “If China attacks Taiwan, we don’t really know their thinking on using nuclear weapons to begin that attack or at any point in the attack.

“Russia has invested in a lot of low and ultra-low yield nuclear weapons.”

Yeaw and Lowther argue that if China or Russia view nuclear war in the Indo-Pacific theater as an advantage, and perhaps their only advantage in a potential conflict with the U.S., is America’s current nuclear arsenal enough of a deterrent?

U.S. allies like South Korea, Japan and Australia are also concerned about America’s nuclear capabilities and its willingness to defend these allies.

“If the U.S. is perceived to be in a weakened position, then the international system as we know it could fall,” Lowther said. “That has consequences such as the declined use of the U.S. dollar and the English language around the world.

“That could also push our non-nuclear allies into pursuing nuclear weapons for their own defense, and that’s not in America’s best interest either.”


Modernization is on the horizon

America’s new stealth bomber (B-21 Raider) took its first flight in late 2023 with orders for “at least” 100 B-21s to bolster the nation’s bomber taskforces.

While not only an aircraft that can deliver a nuclear strike (the B-21 can carry conventional missiles as well), this new stealth bomber is designed to cloak itself from any known radar system and deliver a precision strike on targets anywhere in the world.

American bomber taskforces are seen as a military and diplomatic weapon, with countries around the world requesting bomber presence in integration flying exercises.

U.S. bombers for the first time integrated with the air force of India (in 2023), now the world’s most populous country, a nuclear power, and a neighbor to China who has a heavy hand in Asian geopolitics.

Modernization efforts aren’t limited to the air.

The Navy began construction on a new Columbia class of nuclear-equipped submarines that are expected to come on line sometime in the next decade.

America’s land-based ICBM system is in the early stages of a redesign, which will swap out the Minute Man III system with the new Sentinel system.

Progress with respect to the ICBM switch is slower than many in the nuclear enterprise would like.

“We haven’t done anything close to this magnitude since we built the system in the 1960s,” said Brigadier General Colin Connor, director of intercontinental ballistic missile modernization in the Air Force Global Strike Command. “We’re making this shift while maintaining an ICBM system that offers deterrence 24/7.

“So we’re sustaining and operating the system we have while also planning and installing the new system.”

Connor said the shift to Sentinel employs a host of new technologies, even down to fiber communication lines to replace current copper lines.

“The framework is beginning to be put into place from a military construction standpoint at multiple sites,” Connor said. “A great deal of work has been done on the missile itself.

“Refurbishing the existing things with all the new technologies that are available is an even more time-intensive process that building the original system in the 1960s.”


Atrophied Industry

When the United States eased away from the nuclear enterprise starting in the 1990s, the industry surrounding that enterprise “atrophied.”

Atrophy is part of the American manufacturing story overall, but when military spending budgets weren’t consistent in nuclear and surrounding industries, investment in those industries declined.

There’s been a groundswell of support for the nuclear industry in the past decade, but many at Thursday’s symposium believe that attention and resources need to be directed at the modernization of the nuclear arsenal more urgently for the U.S. to keep its nuclear deterrent status.

“There were certain production lines that were shut down for cost savings purposes, but now we’re having to regenerate and reinvigorate that industrial base,” said Kelly Lee, director of plans and programs in the Navy’s Strategic Systems Programs. “Modernization efforts will present the opportunity to use new technology to open more possibilities.”

Aging workforces are also a concern as many of the older guard have retired or are nearing retirement, taking much of the hard-earned knowledge and relationships from 1980s and 1990s with them.

While engineers and other careers requiring advanced college degrees will always be sought after, defense industry leaders stressed the need to increase the number of skilled workers with vocational backgrounds who actually build and repair the ships, planes, missiles, systems, etc.


Small business wants to help

Defense industry giants like General Dynamics, Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin have numerous defense contracts and invest in research and development.

But small business has a role to play, especially in the technology and software realm with emerging industries like artificial intelligence.

Local businesses like Ingalls Information Security, Praeses, and OuterLink, provide mission-critical components and applications, but the steep barriers to entry and slow pace of government evaluation of companies and ideas makes participation in this area difficult.

“Small businesses are more nimble and more flexible,” said J.D. Hunsicker, vice president of government relations for Praeses. “Our biggest constraint is a risk-management one, what it takes to get the authority to operate.

“How do I get permission from the government, the Department of Defense, either on a classified or unclassified level? Half of the cost of small contracts from businesses like us is related to the time that it takes to work with and get approval from the bureaucracy.”

One huge hurdle for both small business and the government is for projects to be protected from adversaries, which means high-level cyber security networks.

For security reasons, the government has to vet each individual, company and their idea before any access can be given to project details or developments that are classified or involved controlled unclassified information.

A typical timeframe for a company to be granted authority to operate can range from 9-14 months, but there can be many starts and stops and expirations of requests.

“We certainly understand the frustration, and we’ve lived it ourselves in many cases,” said Scott Hardiman, director of NC3 integration for the Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center. “Bureaucracies tend to be risk-averse, especially when it comes to sensitive areas like this.”

“Our job is to bring fractured and stovepipe development all into one place and bring it all together.


Spreading the word

Many of the nuclear experts at the symposium agree that the nuclear enterprise in general hasn’t effectively conveyed its mission to the general public, which in turn can influence congressional members.

One upcoming documentary is attempting to bring awareness about nuclear weapons’ effect as a deterrent to the American public.

“The Watch: America’s Nuclear Mission Revealed,” a documentary focusing on the men and women responsible for operating the global nuclear deterrence mission, has filmed much of its first season.

“The young men and women out here doing this work are extraordinary,” said Jeff Bolton, executive producer. “This has been the most secretive and most important military mission we’ve ever had, and because of that, the unwillingness of our nation to speak about it has been the most important attribute of it.

“This war isn’t going to be won among professionals, among experts. The war for modernization, the war to make sure we have a sufficient number of capabilities, won’t be won anywhere but the public marketplace, the global marketplace. Our task is to tell the story of what you do and why do it through the eyes of these young men and women.”

With the guidance of (retired) Brigadier General Jon Ellis, “The Watch” has absorbed a wealth of information to inform the depth and direction of the documentary.

Once completed, the documentary is expected to be available on all major streaming platforms.