Dan Parsons, Defense Daily
6 May 2016
Both the ground and air legs of the U.S. nuclear triad are in need of replacement and the Air Force would welcome a dedicated fund to pay for their modernization, according to Lt. Gen. Stephen Wilson, deputy Commander of U.S. Strategic Command.
When the Navy made the case to Congress that replacement of its Ohio-class nuclear submarines was a national imperative, it was given the National Sea-based Deterrence Fund where it could stash cash to pay for new subs. Wilson, speaking Friday at a Peter Huessy breakfast on Capitol Hill, said the same argument could be made for walling off funding for ICBM and long-range bomber recapitalization.
"In the main, we think that makes sense," Wilson said of establishing a fund specifically for modernization of the air and ground legs of the triad. "These are a national priority...The Navy said we need this fund for the Ohio-class replacement and they got the seabased deterrent fund. I think that same argument could be made for the other pieces, because this is something we recapitalize about every 50 years and to be able to set aside a fund to do that makes sense."
The Navy's protected fund has been dismissed as a gimmick to move funds around without increasing the service's topline. Former Pentagon Comptroller and current fellow for Booz Allen Hamilton [BAH] Bob Hale, told Defense Daily that protected funds were not a viable approach to tackling modernization challenges without an increase in overall defense spending.
"They don't provide any added resources," Hale said in a recent interview. "It feels to me like we're rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic when we need to focus on not hitting the iceberg.Moving the money around, somebody else is not going to get that money and some of those needs are legitimate as well and if not as highly visible as the Ohio-class replacement, are nonetheless important."
Regardless, the Air Force has a Herculean task ahead in bringing its legs of the nuclear triad into the modern, digital age.
Wilson said the ICBM arsenal is the most responsive leg of the nuclear triad that also includes bombers and submarines. But the 450-plus missiles spread across five states were fielded in the early 1960s and upgraded to the current Minuteman III configuration in the late 1970s. The Air Force has plans to sustain those missiles with upgrades to avionics, targeting and command-and-control capabilities until 2030 when the new Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) comes online.
"It is vital that our new ground-based strategic deterrent remains on track," Wilson said. "It needs to be a fully integrated flight system with the command and control, with all the supporting infrastructure."
Minuteman I was fielded before the first satellite was put in orbit, before the Internet when computing capacity and capability were minute fractions of what is available today, Wilson said.
To shave cost and improve interoperability, the Air Force and Navy are attempting to maximize commonality between the GBSD and the maritime Trident D-5 submarine launched ballistic missile (SLBM).
Spread across 14,000 square miles, the existing ICBM arsenal forces any nation that attacks the United States to "go all in" to take it out, Wilson said. Without that force, a nuclear-capable enemy nation could hold U.S. bomber and submarine bases at risk with about 10 warheads, the low-end number North Korea is thought to possess, Wilson said.
Ten nuclear weapons could take out the air and naval delivery platforms except for deployed subs. Another handful could target national laboratories where nuclear weapons are produced and the facilities where they are stored.
"For the same number of weapons.that North Korea possessed, they would have the ability to destroy our intellectual capability, our production capability and our delivery capability for about 20 years," he said. "That's what the Chinese told me a couple years ago."
In future conflicts where air defenses could hold U.S. forces at ranges out of reach for fighters and other platforms, bombers and standoff munitions will become more important, Wilson said. The Air Force bomber fleet of B-1 Lancers, B-2 Spirits and B-52s are aging and the service simply does not have enough airframes to provide effective nuclear deterrence and a convincing conventional strike capability, he said.
"I would argue.that when you look at what bombers bring in terms of range, persistence and payload, we have a deficit in long-range strike capability," Wilson said. "What that number is going forward, I can't tell you what it is, but I would say we are not where we need to be on that."
The B-52 fleet was introduced beginning in the 1950s while its younger brother the B-2 is 25 years old.
"I'm really heartened and pleased to see the progress we are making on a new bomber, the B-21," Wilson said. "As adversaries continue to build advanced anti-access, area-denial capability that keep forces further out.bombers will become more important."
Bombers need to do more than fly to be taken seriously by enemies with integrated air defenses and established anti-access, area-denial capabilities, he said. That means continuation on development of the new Long-Range Standoff (LRSO) weapon and a model 12 B61 nuclear bomb, he said.
Like most of the elements that make up the U.S. nuclear arsenal, the Air Force's air-launched cruise missiles (ALCM) are aging. They were designed in the 1970s, built in the 1980s and intended to last a decade. The weapons are on their fifth service life extension.
The plan for LRSO is take warheads from legacy ALCM and put it on a new missile body with contemporary technologies that will allow it to fly to a target within a contested environment, Wilson said.
"We're not building new weapons," he said. "We are taking the current ones that we have, the warheads out of the ALCMs and making them more safe, more secure. We're putting it on a bomb body that can make it to the target.Without that, we really don't have an air leg of the triad because the majority of capabilities will be delivered by B-52s, which are a standoff platform."