America’s Evolving Nuclear Strategy

With Washington and most Americans being distracted with “The Memo”, it was an interesting choice of timing to release the final version of the Department of Defense’s Nuclear Posture Review (NPR).  Let’s look at one interesting aspect of America’s evolving use of nuclear weaponry.

Before we dig into the details of the NPR, let’s look at what the report has to say about Russia’s non-strategic nuclear modernization program:

Russia is modernizing an active stockpile of up to 2,000 non-strategic nuclear weapons, including those employable by ships, planes, and ground forces. These include air-to-surface missiles, short range ballistic missiles, gravity bombs, and depth charges for medium-range bombers, tactical bombers, and naval aviation, as well as anti-ship, anti-submarine, and anti-aircraft missiles and torpedoes for surface ships and submarines, a nuclear ground- launched cruise missile in violation of the 1987 INF Treaty, and Moscow’s antiballistic missile system.”

Now, let’s look at the report, focussing on the current U.S. nuclear strategy and how it will evolve over the coming decades.  As it stands now, the United States nuclear triad consists of the following:

1.) nuclear ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) armed with sea-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs)

2.) 400 land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) in 450 underground silos

3.) 46 B-25H and 20 B-2A stealth strategic bombers carrying gravity bombs and air-launched cruise missiles (ALCMs)

According to the report, America’s nuclear triad must have the following attributes:

1.)  Survivable. The force and NC3 resilience needed to survive any potential adversary attack and endure throughout crises and conflict.

2.)  Forward Deployable. The mobility and range needed to temporarily or permanently relocate some U.S. nuclear capability to allied or partner territory for needed political or military effect.

3.)  Diverse and Graduated Options. The availability of forces with the spectrum of yield options, weapon types, and delivery options necessary to support the most effective tailoring of strategies across a range of adversaries and contingencies.

4.)  Accurate Delivery. The precision needed to hold adversary assets at risk while minimizing unintended effects.

5.)  Penetrating. The capacity to counter active and passive defenses, including hardened and buried facilities, to pose credible deterrent threats and achieve military objectives with high confidence.

6.)  Responsive. The capacity to deploy and employ forces as promptly as is necessary to pose credible threats.

7.)  Diversity of Ranges. The availability of forces with a spectrum of range options necessary to support the most effective tailoring of strategies.

8.)  Diversity of Trajectories. The capacity to locate forces at multiple geographical locations and with multiple flight profiles to complicate adversary active and passive defense planning.

9.)  Visible. The capacity to display national will and capabilities as desired for signaling purposes throughout crisis and conflict.

10.)  Weapon Reallocation. The capacity to change target information quickly to enable adaptive planning and effective employment.

Now, let’s look at the key aspects of the DoD’s nuclear replacement/modernization program:

1.) Sea-based deterrence: A minimum of 12 Columbia-class SSBNs will be delivered to replace the 42-year old Ohio-class fleet.  These will become operational in 2031.  The D5 SLBM is in the early stages of a life extension that will allow it to be deployed until 2042 on both Ohio-class and Columbia-class SSBNs.

2.) Ground-based deterrence: the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) will be used as a replacement for the current ICBM launch facilities in 2029.  The 450 six decade-old launch facilities will be modernized to support 400 new ICBMs that will replace the Minuteman III nuclear arsenal.

3.) Air-based deterrence: The B-52H and B-2Afied to ensure their future effectiveness.  A program to develop and deploy the next generation bomber, the B-21 Raider, is in place to replace the aging B-52H and B-2A fleet.  The current air-launched cruise missiles will be replaced by the Long Range Standoff Weapon (LRSO), a stealth weapon contracted to Lockheed Martin and Raytheon.  This weapon will be suitable for use in B-52H as well as the new B-21 Raider.  Nuclear capability is also being incorporated into the F-35. 

Here’s what the NPR has to say about a delay in the nuclear modernization program:

Delays to the SSBN and SLBM replacement programs would reduce the survivability and flexibility of U.S. nuclear capabilities and challenge our ability to maintain rough parity with Russian strategic deployments, even at the reduced levels set by New START. Delays in the GBSD program, accompanied by a rapid age-out of our ICBM force, would dramatically reduce the scale of attack required for an adversary to threaten much of the U.S. deterrent forces in a first-strike attack. Delays in the B-21 bomber program or associated bomber weapons would reduce the ability of our strategic forces to penetrate adversary air defenses, limit the diversity of our response options, and compromise our ability to send the visible deterrence and assurance signals for which strategic bombers are particularly well suited.”

What is all of this going to cost U.S. taxpayers?  While actual dollar cost amounts are not discussed in the NPR, here is a reassuring graphic showing that the cost of nuclear modernization is not even close to what it cost (as a percentage of the total Department of Defense budget) to sustain America’s nuclear arsenal throughout the Cold War:  

With all of that said, here is a fascinating graphic from the NPR showing the vast benefits that the development of nuclear weapons has granted to humanity:

Taking this logic to its furthest extreme, the more nations that have nuclear arms, the greater the deterrent.  Does this mean that the world is safer with Iran and North Korea having nuclear capabilities or is it only safe when the United States controls the entire nuclear armament inventory?

According to the authors of the document, the introduction of the nuclear deterrent in 1945 and the Cold War buildup of what can only be defined as extinction-level weapons has made an “essential contribution to the deterrence of nuclear and non-nuclear aggression” and has “coincided with a dramatic and sustained reduction in the number of lives lost to war globally“.  Of course, the authors of the NPR neglect to mention that, should nuclear war break out, the loss of life would likely make the World War II wartime fatalities look rather modest by comparison.

Let’s close with one last quote from the Nuclear Posture Review:

Non-nuclear forces also play essential deterrence roles. Alone, however, they do not provide comparable deterrence effects, as reflected by the periodic and catastrophic failures of conventional deterrence to prevent Great Power wars throughout history. Similarly, conventional forces alone do not adequately assure many allies and partners. Rather, these states place enormous value on U.S. extended nuclear deterrence, which correspondingly is also key to non-proliferation.”

Apparently, when you only have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

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