B-2 Spirit, the youngest strategic nuclear weapon in our force at 25 years old
A few days ago I attended a conference. The last time I attended a conference, the January 2015 AIAA SciTech Conference, I wrote a blog about it. This most recent conference was the TRIAD Forum sponsored by the Air Force Association and the Utah Defense Alliance. “TRIAD” refers to the 3 legs of nuclear deterrence:
- Sea Launched Ballistic Missile (launched from stealthy submarines)
- Strategic Bombers like the B-52 and B-2
- Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles of which our nation has one, the Minuteman III
The newest weapon system in these three weapon systems categories, the B-2, is 25 years old. It is not hard to see why the theme of the conference was how to affordably keep this old equipment in great shape. The complementary co-theme was how to make sure the new stuff we are thinking of building is affordable when we have created it and start to use it. That is, how do we make sure any new submarines, bombers, and missiles can be sustained affordably?
Besides getting to see a lot of old friends and making a few new ones, I attended this conference because it was so steeped in “sustainment”. And my other public blog is all about Weapon System Sustainment.
The first speaker was Rear Admiral Richard P. Breckenridge, the Navy’s Warfare Integration Director. His talk was a great summary of the whole day. So that is what I will talk about here. He spoke on the 7 important issues to remember about deterrence. His reason for doing so was to remind the folks in the audience that they need to explain what they “do for a living” to their friends, neighbors, and everyone. Many Americans, he said, don’t understand, or perhaps just don’t think about, the role that nuclear deterrence plays in their security and prosperity.
In my words, since we are budgeted to replace a lot of these weapon systems over the next several year, it sure would be great if the taxpayers thought this was a good idea. This can be a hard sell since many see nuclear weapons as inherently evil. I certainly could have a hard time convincing a Utah Downwinder otherwise. There is no argument that the effects of using these weapons would range from horrible (for using a few) to global disaster (if many were used). But allowing adversaries free use of these weapons with no counter from us is not a solution.
Dramatic View of the Testing of a Navy Sea Launch Ballistic Missile from a Submarine
Each of his following 7 points are mostly the Admiral’s words in the first sentence and mostly my commentary for the rest.
1) We have nuclear-armed adversaries. These adversaries are authoritarian regimes. We are not so worried about the nuclear-armed democracies like England and France. But Russia, China, and soon, Iran, are not always so reasonable. Not all countries are created equal in their use of violence to meet national priorities. For example, President Putin recently stated that the protection of Russian people in the Ukraine was a sufficient reason to use nuclear weapons (link here). A priority of Iran is the destruction of the State of Israel (this link for an example). Many more of these unsettling announcements are easily found via Google. Are they literally true? That is, do the people saying them really believe what they are saying or only saying it for effect? If some are not completely true, they are certainly all a form of coercion.
2) All of those adversaries are enhancing their nuclear arsenals. As alluded to above, the democratic countries have pretty old nuclear weapon systems fielded. But the authoritarian countries are constantly modernizing and enhancing their nuclear weapons. Authoritarian countries view nuclear weapons as a source of national pride and a tool for coercion and intimidation. So as central planners, they find it easy to allocate the funds needed to keep improving their nuclear weaponry since it provides the leaders, personally, a definite benefit.
3) We have limited defenses against nuclear attack. We, as a free country, always make a measured decision with each upgrade or new weapon as to whether it improves world peace and stabilization or not. For instance, a missile defense capable of countering North Korea is stabilizing. A missile capable of countering Russia is viewed as de-stabilizing and does not get the go-ahead. Authoritarian countries, on the other hand, want the best they can get, regardless, in order to further their goal of coercion. We ask ourselves, what submarine, bomber, and missile weapon systems combination is just the right mix in keeping with JFK’s famous quote: “We dare not tempt them with our weakness.”
For about a decade the anti-missile missiles in Alaska have stood ready to counter North Korean ICBM threat
4) Nuclear deterrence protects against both nuclear attack and nuclear coercion. With no missile defense fielded against large adversaries like Russia, our weapons tend to help protect us against attack or coercion. I have mentioned this before in a previous blog, our land-based missiles are the primary target an aggressor would have to remove in order to productively win against our nation. If they could possibly wipe out all the missiles, our submarines and bombers would remain to inflict unacceptable damage. Thus, even the most calculating despots (see global nuclear weapons effects above) do not consider direct conflict with the USA as an option. There has not been a world war since WWII. This is not due to a new sense of global citizenship amongst democratic and authoritarian regimes. It is pragmatically in our adversaries’ best interests not to attack.
5) Our extended deterrent stabilizes regions and limits proliferation. Our nuclear weapons have a further stabilization effect of discouraging nuclear proliferation across non-nuclear states. If a country feels secure as a US ally, or the price of processing nuclear bomb fuel is unacceptable, countries will opt not to spend the huge resources needed to create a nuclear weapon capability. And not having the bomb, they will not spend resources creating weapons to deliver it. This is another calculation we make as we decide to spend our resources on nuclear weapons, are we reassuring our allies?
6) Our nuclear forces, submarines, bombers, and missiles, need to be re-capitalized. This will help them remain affordable and capable. Just as you reach a point with your old car where another trip to the car repair shop or car parts store convinces you it is time for a replacement, weapons systems have the same issues. Keeping the capabilities discussed above is fairly inexpensive compared to the overall Federal Budget or GDP.
7) Our nuclear weapons need to evolve. Our ability to deploy and employ a sufficient number of nuclear weapons is declining. For instance, if the Russians were to decide not to follow NEW START, our ability to go beyond our negotiated NEW START levels is problematic. This is negotiating from weakness, which never works well.
Too often military personnel and defense contractors are falsely accused of creating profits based upon war and death. The truth is, military personnel crave peace more than any other citizen, for it is their lot to go fight the wars. The defense contractors (many members former military) generally have civilian divisions that turn profits without the layers of bureaucracy, regulations, public laws, and costs that surround defense contracts. But their members are dedicated to giving our troops the most unfair advantages they can find so any combat is short and decidedly favorable to us. This makes us look bloodthirsty.
Nuclear weapons also include an added layer of heavy responsibility to ensure the weapons can never be used except by those in authority and when not used are 100% safe.
We would all like to see a future where we can eliminate these weapons.
Intercontinental Ballistic Missile Blasts Out of a Test Silo at Vandenberg AFB
So in closing, here is a more complete excerpt to place JFK’s quote in context along with a link to the full text.
Finally, to those nations who would make themselves our adversary, we offer not a pledge but a request: that both sides begin anew the quest for peace, before the dark powers of destruction unleashed by science engulf all humanity in planned or accidental self-destruction.
We dare not tempt them with weakness. For only when our arms are sufficient beyond doubt can we be certain beyond doubt that they will never be employed.
But neither can two great and powerful groups of nations take comfort from our present course–both sides overburdened by the cost of modern weapons, both rightly alarmed by the steady spread of the deadly atom, yet both racing to alter that uncertain balance of terror that stays the hand of mankind’s final war.
So let us begin anew–remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof. Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.
From President John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address, January 20, 1961
For another version of the exact same event, see this newspaper article in the Ogden Standard-Examiner written by Mitch Shaw.