Mattis focuses on US doomsday arsenal

In this June 13, 2017, file photo, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis listens on Capitol Hill in Washington, while testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the Pentagon's budget. As North Korea flaunts its new nuclear muscle, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis is spotlighting the overwhelming numerical superiority of America’s doomsday arsenal. On Wednesday, Sept. 13, he is dropping in on ground zero of American nuclear firepower: Minot Air Force base in North Dakota, home to more than 100 land-based nuclear missiles as well as nuclear bomb-toting aircraft. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)

WASHINGTON — As North Korea flaunts its new nuclear muscle, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis is spotlighting the overwhelming numerical superiority of America’s doomsday arsenal.

On Wednesday he is dropping in on ground zero of American nuclear firepower: Minot Air Force base in North Dakota, home to more than 100 land-based nuclear missiles as well as nuclear bomb-toting aircraft.

He also will receive briefings at Strategic Command, whose top officer would command nuclear forces in war.

The visits were scheduled before a recent series of North Korean nuclear and missile tests, but they give Mattis a chance to highlight what the Air Force touts as an always-ready fleet of land-based missiles and B-52 bombers equipped to deliver nuclear devastation to nearly any point on the globe in short order.

Minot and Strategic Command headquarters at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska also are timely backdrops for a related political message: The Trump administration intends to press ahead with a multibillion-dollar modernization of the entire nuclear arsenal. The Pentagon is in the midst of an in-depth review of nuclear weapons policy, but it seems already clear that upgrading the Cold War-era nuclear force is a foregone conclusion.

Last month the Pentagon signaled its intentions by awarding two key contracts. One was to Northrop Grumman and Boeing, totaling nearly $700 million, for further development of an intercontinental ballistic missile, or ICBM, to replace the Minuteman 3.

The other was to Lockheed Martin and Raytheon for $1.8 billion to work on a new nuclear-armed, air-launched cruise missile. The Air Force also is proceeding with development of a next-generation nuclear-capable bomber, dubbed the B-21 Raider, and the Navy is building a new fleet of strategic nuclear submarines.

How this fits into the broader defense budget in coming years is unclear. Kingston Reif, a nuclear policy specialist at the Arms Control Association, says his analysis of budget figures suggests that the total cost over 30 years could approach $1.5 trillion, when adjusting for inflation.

“The current approach exceeds what is necessary for deterrence and assumes that the United States will maintain a nuclear arsenal like the one it has now for decades to come,” Reif said, noting the Obama administration had determined that the nuclear arsenal could be cut further without sacrificing security.

Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said in an Associated Press interview on Monday that there is no practical alternative to modernizing the force.

“At some point, stuff just breaks,” she said, referring to the Minuteman 3, which was first deployed in 1970. “The materials just are not able to be maintained anymore.”

Mattis in recent weeks has all but dismissed the idea — he himself raised it in congressional testimony two years ago — that the country might be better off eliminating the ICBM fleet. In June, the Air Force finished reducing the number of Minuteman 3 missiles by 50 to a total of 400, the lowest since 1962.