Nuclear deterrence, the U.S. military ace card that hasn’t been played much since the U.S.S.R. collapsed in a heap, is a hot item again. President Donald Trump remains locked in a months-long war of words with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un over the country’s nuclear program, raising the anxiety over global nuclear war to its highest levels since 1983’s WarGames spurred presidential action (really). The Pentagon is considering returning to a 24-hour “strip alert” for nuclear-capable bombers for the first time since the end of the Cold War. And on Nov. 14, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee took a long, hard look at the commander-in-chief’s nuclear launch authority in light of Trump’s unusual first year in office.
Since the 1980s, all three legs of the United States’ nuclear deterrent force have been kept up and running with regular, pricey maintenance and upgrades. But the Air Force is moving ahead with plans to overhaul the ground and air legs of the atomic triad by buying two new nuclear-capable missile systems — despite the fact that the Congressional Budget Office has estimated that nuclear purchases through 2024 could ultimately cost taxpayers upwards of $384 billion. While the service’s top brass are adamant that they need to modernize to keep American deterrence credible, critics say the branch is taking the wrong approach. Here’s a quick and dirty primer on what’s happening.