A Surprising Consensus on Nuclear Modernization

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A Surprising Consensus on Nuclear Modernization
By: Rebecca Hersman

U.S. nuclear policy has been mired in growing disagreement and political polarization throughout the past year. Differing and firmly held beliefs from both sides of the political aisle have frustrated hopes for a united front on a number of issues—foremost among them, the Iran deal, the U.S. response to Russian nuclear saber rattling, and the long-term objective of a world without nuclear weapons as outlined by President Obama in the Prague Agenda. Growing terrorism and extremism in the Middle East, increasing nuclearization across Asia, and nuclear posturing in Europe point to a world in which nuclear dangers are on the rise, but consensus on the role of U.S. nuclear weapons in this precarious environment remains elusive. Yet, despite this otherwise bumpy and divisive terrain, there has been one unique area of consensus: modernization of the nuclear enterprise. Perhaps contrary to expectations, there exists broad bipartisan agreement on the need for a “safe, secure, and effective” nuclear arsenal that meets a new and uncertain twenty-first-century security environment. While the means and the affordability of modernization remain under debate, both the Obama administration and Congress have expressed a clear intent to strengthen human capital development throughout the nuclear enterprise and to invest the necessary resources to support and maintain the nuclear arsenal, its delivery systems, and infrastructure in the coming decades.

One year after the release of the Nuclear Enterprise Reviews, which found systemic, demoralizing problems within the overall enterprise, the United States has begun the process of revitalizing the workforce and increasing funding for nuclear modernization, maintenance, and security. The FY2016 budget request (which might be taken as an expression of the administration’s vision for the nuclear enterprise, even as the eventual congressional appropriation will differ) prioritizes funds for addressing previous deficiencies in infrastructure, training, and nuclear weapons support manning. Additionally, the motivational and personnel issues highlighted in the 2014 Nuclear Enterprise Review have received promising attention, and the Air Force is implementing initiatives for human capital development to provide high-quality training and education through professional development opportunities. These developments are encouraging. They indicate a recognition at the highest levels of government that problems exist within the nuclear enterprise—as well as a consensus that such problems must be addressed through modernization of not only the arsenal itself, but also the physical infrastructure and the human capital that are so vital to its safety, security, and effectiveness on a day-to-day basis.

This December 9 and 10, the Project on Nuclear Issues (PONI) will highlight some of these modernization initiatives, in addition to other topics within the realm of nuclear policy, during its annual Winter Conference. Among the topics of discussion will be the affordability of nuclear modernization in an era of sequestration, the progress made in revitalizing the human capital dimension of the nuclear enterprise, new and emerging technologies for improving nuclear security, the intersection between nuclear and nonstate actors, and regional dynamics in Europe in the face of assertive Russian rhetoric.

Register here to attend the PONI Winter Conference on December 9–10, 2015.

Rebecca Hersman is director of the Project on Nuclear Issues and senior adviser for the International Security Program. Other posts by .


  • john r. harvey
    December 1, 2015, 6:13 pm  Reply

    Rebecca, SArah, Shannelle. you folks got it dead right. Given the corrosive political environment between congress and the administration on most other things, the fact that a consensus on nuclear modernization has emerged is quite striking and noteworthy. I am a bit more optimistic than perhaps you are that we are also witnessing an emerging consensus on roles and missions as well.

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