US Sentinel missile woes raise nuclear readiness concerns – Asia Times

The US Sentinel intercontinental ballistic missile ( ICBM ) program’s skyrocketing costs are a threat to the crucial weapon’s future in the same way that the US is facing growing nuclear competition from China and Russia.

This month, the US Air Force’s ( USAF ) Sentinel ICBM program, managed by Northrop Grumman, has seen its cost estimate soar to approximately US$ 160 billion, up from$ 95.8 billion, Reuters reported. The document asserts that soaring prices since 2020 may involve reducing the site’s range or timetable.

The Sentinel programme aims to change aging Minuteman III weapons, ensuring the progression of land-based US nuclear deterrent features. The Nunn-McCurdy Act has been triggered by the most recent price increase, which necessitates a proper explanation for the project’s increased expenditure, according to the Reuters statement.

However, according to Reuters, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin is likely to address the US Congress the following week, and the US Department of Defense ( DOD ) is expected to release a new cost estimate soon. The document adds that rising prices are also putting pressure on different USAF programs.

According to the Reuters report, the DOD is considering changing the structure plan and Sentinel’s construction to control costs. It mentions that the USAF has recently acknowledged a price increase to “at least”$ 131 billion in January, which now exceeded the Nunn-McCurdy level.

The US is currently engaged in a three-way nuclear arms race between China and Russia, with the US struggling to increase its army in response to its allies ‘ threats and nuclear modernisation.

A senior Biden administration standard, Pranay Vaddi, said in June 2024 that in response to China’s and Russia’s growing nuclear arsenal that the US may need to increase, ending decades of decline work.

According to the same report, this attitude, which was revealed at the Arms Control Association’s quarterly meeting, comes as China aims to have the same number of nuclear weapons as Russia and the US by 2035, and Russia threatens to employ nuclear weapons in Ukraine and storage.

The US attempts to modernize its arsenal, as demonstrated by the development of the B61-13 gravity bomb, according to the New York Times report, but expansion is on the table if adversaries ‘ trajectory does n’t change.

Additionally, it asserts that the US is still available to arms control agreements, but that it has doubtful prospects for new pacts, and that it is also getting ready for a world of radioactive contest without numeric restraints.

According to The New York Times, the US hopes to encourage Russia and China to resume arms control negotiations by promoting politics rather than unrestricted competitors.

The US faces difficulties in moving the nuclear coming toward security with no speaks on replacing the New START contract and China’s indifference in arms manage until its army is considerably increased.

China’s growing nuclear arsenal, Russia’s nuclear risks in the Ukraine conflict, and the burgeoning China-Russia nuclear assistance are all clear sources of concern for US defence planners.

In the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute ( SIPRI ) 2024 Yearbook, Hans Kristensen and Matt Korda mention that, as of January 2024, China’s nuclear arsenal has seen a significant expansion, with an estimated total stockpile of about 500 nuclear warheads.

This is an increase over the past year and 90 more than SIPRI’s projection for 2023, according to Kristensen and Korda. They assert the stockpile progress is part of China’s broader nuclear development and growth, which includes the development of property- and sea-based nuclear weapons and nuclear-configured plane.

Additionally, Kristensen and Korda point out that China’s efforts to modernize indicate a change in its nuclear strategy, which might indicate that some missiles are then combined with their supply systems, a significant change from China’s previous policy of keeping weapons separate during wartime.

They also point out that the US DOD predicts that China’s nuclear arsenal could possibly increase by 2030, but this prediction is based on speculation about the country’s future military posture and plutonium output.

There is no public information that the Chinese government has altered its important nuclear laws, including its “no-first-use” legislation, despite China’s nuclear arsenal growing and becoming more sophisticated and larger.

Kristensen and Korda also mention that, as of January 2024, Russia maintained a fierce nuclear army with an estimated 4, 380 missiles. They say that Russia’s strategic nuclear forces, comprising aircraft, land-based missiles and submarine-launched ballistic missiles ( SLBM ), account for approximately 2, 822 warheads.

They point out, however, that Russia has experienced a net decrease of 109 warheads in comparison to the previous year, despite the deployment of new ICBMs and a new nuclear ballistic missile submarine ( SSBN).

They even mention that Russia’s non-strategic nuclear causes, designed to offset perceived regular weakness vis-a-vis NATO forces, are estimated to have practically 1, 560 warheads.

Kristensen and Korda say that in contrast to China’s “no-first-use” nuclear policy, Russia’s nuclear strategy, highlighted by its deterrence policy, outlines explicit conditions for launching nuclear weapons, including in response to attacks on Russian territory or allies.

Moreover, Asia Times reported in March 2023 that Russia had announced plans to provide China with advanced nuclear reactor technology, potentially enabling a substantial increase in China’s nuclear warhead production.

In December 2022, China received 25 tons of highly enriched uranium ( HEU) from Russia’s state nuclear agency, Rosatom, for its CFR-600 fast breeder reactor. According to US defense officials, the uranium transfer could help China increase its nuclear arsenal to 1,500 by 2035.

The US sees the CFR-600 as a stepping stone for military nuclear capabilities, despite China’s claim that it is solely tied to its desire to have a civilian nuclear power.

In contrast, Asia Times reported in January 2024 that the US faces challenges in modernizing its nuclear arsenal because of issues with its warheads. Due to microscopic changes that can affect storage safety and explosive yield, the US cannot use plutonium from decommissioned warheads in new ones.

Existing US plutonium nuclear pits, designed for older weapons, may not perform as expected in newer weapons. The US wants to build 80 plutonium pits by 2026 to modernize its nuclear arsenal, but its current production capacity prevents it from achieving this goal until 2030 or perhaps even 2040.

This shortfall is attributed to post-Cold War complacency, a lack of skilled nuclear workers, declining industrial infrastructure and restrictive environmental regulations.

Despite these difficulties, the US National Nuclear Security Administration ( US NNSA ) intends to construct 30 new pits each year at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and 50 new pits annually at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina.

However, these efforts are reportedly behind schedule, highlighting the difficulties in restarting US pit production.