Esper: Nuclear triad must remain effective, reliable, credible

Defense Secretary Dr. Mark T. Esper hosts a town hall with airmen and their families during a visit to Minot Air Force Base, N.D., Feb. 19, 2020. (Army photograph by Staff Sgt. Brandy Nicole Mejia)

The fiscal year 2021 defense budget request places a high priority on modernizing the nation’s strategic nuclear triad, Defense Secretary Dr. Mark T. Esper emphasized during a visit to Minot Air Force Base, N.D.

The secretary met Feb. 19, 2020, with leaders and airmen at the 91st Missile Wing and the 5th Bomb Wing, and he toured a B-52 bomber and a nuclear launch silo. Bombers and ground-launched missiles make up two-thirds of the nuclear triad, with submarine-launched missiles providing its third leg.

“It’s been a very good education for me,” he said. “The nuclear strategic triad is the most important part of our military. It’s key to our nation’s defense. It provides that strategic nuclear deterrent that we depend on day after day — that we’ve depended on decade after decade.”

For that reason, Esper said, modernization of the nuclear triad is of top importance to both the White House and the Pentagon.

Defense Secretary Dr. Mark T. Esper shakes hands with an airman assigned to the 91st Missile Wing during a visit to Minot Air Force Base, N.D., Feb. 19, 2020. (Army photograph by Staff Sgt. Brandy Nicole Mejia)

“The president was very clear to me, to the Pentagon, to the Hill, that modernization of our strategic nuclear forces is priority No. 1,” the secretary said. “So, we made it priority No. 1 in our budget, and the numbers should show that.”

Top priorities in DOD’s budget request include nuclear modernization, missile defeat and defense, space and cyberspace.

For fiscal year 2021, DOD is asking for $28.9 billion to fund modernization of the nuclear defense program, covering all three legs of the nuclear triad. Around $7 billion is targeted at nuclear command, control and communications. Another $2.8 billion is earmarked for the B-21 Raider long-range strike bomber. The Air Force eventually expects to purchase 100 of the aircraft, which will carry the B61-12 and B83 nuclear gravity bombs, as well as the long-range standoff cruise missile.

The request also funds procurement of the Columbia-class ballistic submarine for $4.4 billion and the ground-based strategic deterrent for $1.5 billion. The ground-based strategic deterrent is expected to replace about 400 Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles.

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