All three legs of the United States' nuclear triad are rapidly approaching the end of their planned service lives. Officials from both the Air Force and Navy are racing against tight schedules to bring new platforms online to replace them.
The triad is made up of land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, long-range bombers and ballistic missile submarines. Legacy systems are reaching retirement age at the same time over the next decade or so. That has officials scrambling to ensure there is no lapse in coverage, particularly as the United States faces threats abroad.
"We go to great lengths to ensure that every one of those weapons systems, regardless of how old they may be or how long they've been in service, will always, always get the job done if ever called upon to do so," said Vice Adm. Dave Kriete, deputy commander of U.S. Strategic Command. "But we can't maintain those standards with the current weapon systems forever." Strategic Command, located at Offutt Air Force Base near Omaha, Nebraska, is in charge of the nation's nuclear forces.
Kriete noted that because of previous decisions, the Defense Department currently finds itself trying to replace several components of its aging nuclear deterrent at the same time.
"We haven't staggered them," he said during a panel discussion at a nuclear modernization seminar hosted by MITRE Corp. and George Washington University. That has presented a challenge to the military.
"We have an accumulated level of risk and we acknowledge that," he said in December.
The Navy is working to replace its Ohio-class submarines with new Columbia-class boomers. The Ohio originally had a service life of 30 years, but the sea service extended that to 42 years, which it will soon reach, said Vice Adm. Johnny Wolfe, director of strategic systems programs for the Navy.
The Columbia is the service's No. 1 acquisition priority and it plans to get the lead boat on patrol by 2031, he said. The Navy plans to buy 12 submarines.
While the program is funded and going well, it is also "line-on-line," he said.
"Every Ohio that we have to pull up, we will get a Columbia just in time," he said. "We pushed that modernization program as far as we can push it."
Wolfe declined to specify exactly how much slack the program has remaining but said there is still margin to get to first delivery on time.
In the meantime, the service must ensure that the Ohio-class is an effective nuclear deterrent.
"We continue to prove for Stratcom the reliability and the accuracy of that system," he said. It does so by conducting periodic missile launches at least four times a year to prove that the system works. In 2019, the Navy launched five missiles to test its capability.