Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Determining Our Nuclear Course

Andrew Gonyea
Communications Assistant

The Mitchell Institute for Airpower Studies presented its report titled “Triad, Dyad, Monad? Shaping the U.S. Nuclear Force for the Future” Dec. 9. The report seeks to answer the question: As the United States reduces the size and alters the makeup of its nuclear forces, how can U.S. planners ensure that our country remains safe from outside threats and effective in enforcing stability?

Today, the United States employs a nuclear triad consisting of land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), and strategic bombers. But as the United States moves to comply with nuclear arms reduction treaties and agreements with Russia, which (as of now) will eventually lower each country’s number of operationally deployed nuclear warheads to between 1,500 and 1,675 and delivery vehicles to between 500 and 1,100, it must attempt to find a course which will maximize deterrence and stability with a diminished nuclear force.

The Mitchell Institute report breaks down “deterrence” and “stability” capabilities into several criteria: Warheads on Alert, Survivability (Day-to-Day), Survivability (Generated), Aimpoints, Ability to Penetrate, Promptness, Signal of Alert Readiness Changes, Crisis Stability, and Connectivity/Retargetability. These criteria encompass such factors as vulnerability to “bolt out of the blue” strikes, geographical distribution of nuclear forces, quickness to strike after launch, etc.

According to Mitchell Institute analyses, each triad leg (ICBMs, SLBMs, bombers) fulfills varying levels of the individual criteria, so the goal for U.S. planners is to find the best distribution of 1,500 operationally deployed nuclear warheads and 500 delivery vehicles among the three triad legs.

Taking into account the projected limits on deployed warheads and delivery vehicles, the maximization of deterrence and stability, and also cost, the Mitchell Institute’s finding is that the United States is already shifting to a de facto nuclear dyad of ICBMs and SLBMs. Based on this finding, the report recommends that the United States maintain and modernize its small B-2 force for selective nuclear strikes, phase out the B-52 from a nuclear role as Air Launched Cruise Missiles (ALCMs) are retired from service, and divert any planned investments in the B-52 and a new ALCM into a new conventional bomber.

Such a recommendation, if adopted, could have an impact on funding for the next generation of long-range strike aircraft, which will be included in next year’s Presidential budget. See ROA Blog on this topic.

Like the Mitchell Institute report, ROA acknowledges that the costs of maintaining the B-52 bomber fleet and researching and developing a new ALCM would be great. However, as ROA’s resolution states, ROA currently advocates an operational need for a new, stealthy long-range strike system or heavy bomber with conventional and nuclear capabilities and survivability during persistent presence in hostile airspace. However, this belief is based largely on the 2005-2006 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), in which the Department of Defense determined that the U.S. Air Force should develop a new long-range strike system to surpass today’s fleet of B-52, B-1B and B-2 bombers.

Despite the Mitchell Institute recommendations, we are likely to see more come out of the 2010 QDR on this topic. The 2010 QDR process has already indicated the potential need for a new bomber. This review will likely include focus on possible rogue threats such as Iran and responses to terrorist access to nuclear weapons – threats that the Mitchell paper admittedly does not consider. The paper focuses only on potential threats from nuclear-capable peer countries Russia and China. A review of comprehensive threats may determine a need to retain a nuclear triad.

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