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We're back, and so is our love of the bomb

We're back, and so is our love of the bomb

While we are working on some fabulous new extended blog posts and getting our podcasts in order, we wanted to spend the next few weeks talking about some of the major developments in CBRN world, building off our post on the newly resurgent Cold War between the United States and Russia (and, to a lesser degree, China).  

From the rediscovery of AirLand Battle Doctrine in the Army, to recent mini-REFORGERs in Europe, the cool, cool breeze you feel isn't just the fall wind tousling your hair. The summer and fall headlines were all about his Hairness Donald Trump, Syria, or everyone's favorite shirtless, bear riding, judo master, Vlad the Invader. Unless you were paying close attention (and we were), the real story in CBRN world right now is nuclear weapons. Specifically, the long neglected American nuclear triad is finally getting some attention.  

As we have noted elsewhere, the Russians consider their nuclear triad the center of their defense strategy. While they made significant and necessary reductions in their arsenal, they continued to field new nuclear weapons delivery systems since the end of the Cold War, particularly subs and missiles. Those new weapons abilities are questionable, but they are trying. The US on the other hand has reduced its arsenal, but made no significant upgrades. Essentially America's nuclear triad has been on life support since the early 1990s. That is changing rapidly. In part, because of revelations of how bad it has gotten, but primarily because life support isn't working. Many of these systems are bumping up against the hard edge of their designed life spans.

A quick review may be in order. Both the United States and Russia depend on a redundant strategic nuclear capability called a "triad.” The triad consists of three components - a bomber force able to drop nuclear bombs or launch nuclear cruise missiles, land based missile systems (ICBMs, as well as short, medium, and long range missiles), and submarine based systems. There is a fourth tactical element also maintained by both sides (the US B-61 modernization program, and Russia’s extensive and vast tactical stockpile), but that is a subject for another day. When we speak of the “triad” we are only talking about strategic weapons, generally those covered by the New START treaty in effect since 2011 and covered here.

The emergence of these triads is complex. The traditional justification is that the triad offers a redundancy that deters "first strike" scenarios, you can try to take out all the ICBMs in a surprise first strike, but a sub could still get you back and a bomber might still get through. The real growth of the triad is more about bureaucratic politics and entrenched interests within the military-industrial complexes of both the United States and the Soviet Union/Russia. 

Atomic bombs in the 40s and 50s were the first leg of the triad, and delivered by bombers. During the early years of the Cold War, bombers ruled. Curtis LeMay chomped on his cigars and significant parts of the defense budget, while the Army withered in Pentomic lunacies, focused on planning for a tactical nuclear war (yes, that was a thing, along with the infamous Davy Crockett). The Army and Marine Corps refocused on conventional conflict as Eisenhower's Massive Retaliation strategy gave way to Kennedy's Flexible Response in 1961. That evolution is topic for a future post, but the key factor from a strategic weapons standpoint was that the new defense policy implemented by McNamara and his Whiz Kids, coincided with the development of missile technology that made bombers less important.  

The Soviet Union and the United States developed the first Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBM) in the late 1950s, and the first American SSBN put to sea in 1959. Meanwhile, Sputnik 1 launched the space race in 1957, and the Soviets and the US both started testing and fielding ICBMs in 1957, with the Atlas D and the Soviet R-7 entering active deployment as dedicated nuclear missile systems in 1959.  

Thus, by 1960, both sides had the beginnings of their nuclear triads in place. Now, along the way no one said, “Hey, let’s make three kinds of nuclear delivery systems as part of a cohesive deterrence strategy,” rather, the three systems developed independently and especially in the United States, those developments were part of larger inter-service struggles over defense dollars and the nuclear enterprise. Key was the conflict in the mid to late 1950s over the Army’s Jupiter Missile Program. 

Curtis LeMay at the height of his power in 1957, lighting his ubiquitous cigar with all the money he scored the Air Force. (Image: NSA Archive, GWU University - Public Domain).

Curtis LeMay had little interest in nuclear missiles, though the Air Force halfheartedly supported the development of the Atlas and Thor systems. Nevertheless, the battle for defense dollars drove what became one of the era’s most bitter inter-service fights. With the Air Force, Navy, and Army all independently developing nuclear missile technology for short, medium, and long-range targets, as well as for air defense, the Army and the Air Force fought a very public battle centered on the Jupiter program (which was originally a joint Army-Navy project).

America's Favorite Nazi, Wernher von Braun. Image: NASA, Public Domain.

The Air Force was worried, primarily because the Jupiter was a better missile than anything in the Air Force pipeline. Designed to be very accurate, for the time, the Air Force didn’t think the Army could accomplish such a technological feat. Further, the Air Force missile programs were a mess, while Werner von Braun and the boys at Redstone were the best in the business. If the Army built a superior missile, and ended up the primary missile force, than the defense dollars would roll their way, away from LeMay’s precious bomber force. Further, the two sides were engaged in a philosophical argument about the nature of any future European conflict and the relative deterrence value of bombers versus missiles. The Air Force opposed ideas like Flexible Response and was the chief proponent of Massive Retaliation, a strategy the Air Force referred to as the “Sunday Punch.”[1] 

By 1956, the internecine war at the Pentagon spilled into the press, with the Air Force claiming the Nike was so bad the Army was “unfit to guard the nation.” The SecDef, Charles Wilson, fed up with the infighting and apparently believing the Air Force propaganda, decided to hand the Jupiter over to the Air Force in hopes of getting it into production. He limited the Army to missiles with a range less than 200 miles and short-range air-defense (100 miles). The Army was not happy and lost significant defense dollars (there was also a court martial over Army leaks to the press in the aftermath).[2] The Air Force, beginning a long tradition, then immediately sought to scuttle the entire Jupiter program and refocus on its bomber force.[3] One can see echoes of this tactic in the current F-35 versus A-10 battle.

General Matthew Ridgway asks Secretary Wilson to remove the knife from his back...Pictured: GEN Matthew Ridgway, French GEN Paul Ely, Secretary of Defense Charles Wilson and ADM Arthur Radford, 22 March 1954 (Public Domain).

General Matthew Ridgway asks Secretary Wilson to remove the knife from his back...Pictured: GEN Matthew Ridgway, French GEN Paul Ely, Secretary of Defense Charles Wilson and ADM Arthur Radford, 22 March 1954 (Public Domain).

These entrenched interests were what sustained the triads on both sides of the Cold War, and still do. The Air Force wanted to maintain their place as the pre-eminent nuclear arm and the core of American deterrence. The ground based missile systems were originally a competition between the Air Force and the Army. A competition the Air Force won. The Navy built SLBMs and SSBNs to get in on the action and to counter similar Soviet programs. Thus, independent and reactionary weapons development and bureaucratic politics in the Pentagon created the "triad" concept, more so than deep strategic thought. In reality, the Triad emerged as a post facto justification for sustaining the three separate systems.  

The same struggle is re-emerging between the Navy and the Air Force (the Army doesn't play with nuclear weapons anymore). Both services typically fight over budgets in the after math of any major conflict; while the Army and Marine Corps face significant cutbacks even though those two forces inevitably do all of the fighting. That is as old an American tradition as the Republic itself. In the U.S., this mostly has to do with Congressional pork barrel spending. The best way to "bring home the bacon" in Congress is to keep the defense factories open. Defense firms deliberately spread those jobs and industries over numerous key congressional districts, for that reason. Congress loves building airplanes and ships. Those are jobs back home, jobs held by voters. The Army and Marine Corps have no similar constituencies. 

Now, with the beginnings of a new Cold War, both the Air Force and Navy have dusted off long delayed plans for updating the nuclear triad (along with plans by DOE to upgrade the nuclear enterprise that underpins it). These are huge, extraordinarily expensive programs. They will swallow up large portions of defense and national security spending, and money in the Pentagon is power. The boys with the biggest toys usually win inside the E-Ring.  

So, what does that look like? The Air Force wants a new bomber to go with the F-35 Albatross and recently awarded a contract to build it, though that process is being challenged. The Navy wants new missile boats. As many note, these new subs, bombers, and the F-35 all come with a price tag that is unsustainable at present funding levels. Meanwhile there is a lot of attention focused on an upgrade program to the Minuteman silos and on improving the quality of the missile forces that support them. DoE and the Air Force continue to pursue both the B-61 (tactical bomb) upgrade, and have a number of proposals and programs focused on modernizing the "nuclear enterprise."  

These things are starting to happen, even if in fits and starts, after decades of back-burner debate. The Navy and Air Force brass are pursuing these projects, though they seem to be emulating the gap between aspiration and reality that bedevils the Russian programs. There are valid strategic reasons for upgrading America’s strategic deterrent. But all of this has more to do with maintaining bureaucratic turf and grabbing up bigger chunks of a shrinking defense budget in the US.

Unfortunately, there are real strategic questions no one seems to be asking. So we are going to do it:

1) While the Russians have modernized parts of their triad, they have not been very successful at it. There is a significant gap between their aspirations and their capabilities. While their nuclear forces are huge and a central part of their defense strategy, they have their own problems with aging infrastructure and limited funds, made worse by the drop in oil prices. There are lunatics who think they can deter Russia with conventional “Prompt Global Strike” programs. We are not among them, nor are the Russians. The real question – what does it actually take to deter their forces (conventional and nuclear) in order to prevent any contemplation of a first strike or the invasion of a NATO ally (particularly the Baltic states)?

2) How do hypersonic weapons (designed to defeat existing and proposed missile defense systems) fit into the picture? If we are building a new sub to hold old missiles, what did we really update?  

3) Arguably, the most important part of a deterrence strategy is that it can’t singularly focus on Russia (and/or China). Pakistan is cranking out plutonium as fast as it can. China’s nuclear force is completely opaque, and modernizing. The Middle East is erupting into a nuclear arms race before our eyes. North Korea is behaving more erratic than ever and is less under control of the Chinese. Deterring what will be an increasing array of nuclear-armed nations is a lot harder than the old Cold War “us versus them” calculations. The old rules don’t apply and the new rules don’t exist yet. We need to think about that future, not the past.

4) The most fundamental question of all: Do we need a triad? Can we get by with two legs? One? What does the size, shape, and composition of that force look like?  Nuclear weapons and their delivery systems are very expensive. They are attractive bits of the defense budget to certain Congressional districts. Meanwhile, the US Army is the smallest it has been in almost 100 years, and the technological edge of the United States in conventional warfare is slipping. Can we get by with less in the strategic realm? If so, how? These are questions Congress and the National Security Council should be asking and arguing about, but are not.

The US has a unique opportunity, despite the political challenges associated with it. While there are a significant number of Democrats (the White House included), and even a few Republicans that actually believe Nuclear Zero is possible, that is a fantasy. The truth is, nuclear proliferation is increasing, not decreasing and a new Cold War looms. Instead of incremental upgrades to our triad, we have the opportunity to rethink the entire stockpile. If we accept the nearly unassailable fact that nuclear deterrence is and will remain a key component of US national security, than what does that look like going forward? The Russians, despite their attempts at modernizing their strategic nuclear forces, are doing the same old thing. We are playing catch up to them after a 25-year vacation. What we really need is a leap forward, because modernization in its present configuration is taking us back to the Cold War, not forward into the future.

 

FOOTNOTES:

[1] As in, “knock you into next Sunday.”

[2] The Army court-martialed COL John C. Nickerson for leaking information about the classified Pershing missile program, among other things, in an attempt to discredit much of what the Air Force was saying in the press. He paid a fine of $1500 and lost his clearance for a year. In addition,  the Army banished him to the Panama Canal Zone. The Army quietly reinstated him in 1958 and assigned him to Texas in early 1960. He died in a car-accident near Alamogordo, N.M. on March 1, 1964. Sources: http://calteches.library.caltech.edu/241/1/personals.pdf and https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1368&dat=19570626&id=k0xQAAAAIBAJ&sjid=eA8EAAAAIBAJ&pg=6053,2705402&hl=en

[3] The Paul Harvey here is quite interesting. When Sputnik went up shortly after Wilson’s decision, the Air Force’s efforts to cancel Jupiter got put on hold, though the Air Force continued to drag its feet on deployment. Ultimately, a few were deployed and the Jupiter’s in Turkey ended up being important in the Cuban missile crisis, though they were not obsolete as some suggest. The real success of Jupiter (which was a damn good missile) was the team that designed and built it at Redstone Arsenal, led by none other than Werner von Braun of Nazi V-1/V-2 fame. Not wanting to break up what was widely seen as America’s best missile design team, the Army Ballistic Missile Agency (ABMA) was kept on life support between 1957 and 1958 by the fledgling Advanced Research Projects Administration (ARPA), now known as DARPA.  In 1958, the ABMA became the core of NASA, and Redstone became the Marshall Space Flight Center. The ABMA's design for a successor to Jupiter (originally intended for the CORONA program) became the Saturn rocket that took America to the Moon.

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