The US nuclear deterrent will run aground in 2022, but there’s “still time” to have a national debate on whether the country needs to replace it on a one-for-one basis, the Air Force’s requirements and planning chief said Friday. Lt. Gen. Mike Holmes told reporters the Air Force already has its hands full recapitalizing the airborne leg of the nuclear triad with a new bomber, cruise missile, and B61 nuclear bomb, but the need to recapitalize the Minuteman III ICBM, as well as what he called the “fourth leg” of the triad—the Nuclear Command and Control system, which USAF also manages—will break the bank. “Our problems really start to get unmanageable in ’22, as the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent program advances,” he said. “We’d like to have a national debate on, what does 21st century deterrence actually mean? We know there’s still a nuclear component to it, but is it the same?” The cyber and conventional deterrent needs to be considered as well, he said, because Russia’s moves in the Ukraine have illustrated that it’s “hard for us to intervene without triggering a nuclear response.” Fully funding triad replacement will cut deeply into conventional force funds, he said. “That’s a decision the country has to make, what the right number is … We’ll either have to put more money into it, or accept risk on the conventional side, or decide that 21st century deterrence is different, and make some choices.” (See also: Investing in Deterrence.)
U.S. Air Force F-35s and F-22s regularly deploy deep into the Pacific region from Alaska, Utah, and Hawaii. In the future, though, the head of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command would like to see the Air Force permanently station fifth-generation aircraft west of the international date line—closer to China.