US To Launch A New Nuclear Arms Race: But Why Build Costly New Bombers When Drones Are Cheaper?
January 21, 2016
Gordon Adams Richard Sokolsky / Defense One & T. X. Hammes / Defense One.com
Despite his anti-nuclear words, the president is about to cave to the nuclear arms priesthood. The US is on the cusp of launching an unnecessary, expensive, and dangerous modernization of its nuclear forces. It is neither necessary nor affordable to invest in a new strategic bombers when the current fleet can operate effectively for another 20 years. Rather than spending money for legacy systems, we need to plan how to gradually phase them out over the next decades
Obama Is About To Launch A New Nuclear Arms Race. There's a Better Way
Gordon Adams Richard Sokolsky / Defense One
(January 18, 2016) -- Despite his anti-nuclear words, the president is about to cave to the nuclear arms priesthood. The United States is on the cusp of launching an unnecessary, expensive, and potentially dangerous plan to modernize its strategic nuclear forces, helping stimulate what is being called a "new nuclear arms race."
Before Washington starts down this path, it needs to step back and ask, "How much is enough?" or, as the Cold War adage went, "How high do we need to make the rubble bounce? The United States can deter any country from using nuclear weapons against America and its treaty allies with a nuclear force that is far smaller, less destabilizing, and less expensive than the one the Pentagon is planning to build.
This October will mark the 30th anniversary of the Reykjavik Summit, where President Ronald Reagan and then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev came close to abolishing nuclear weapons. Six years ago, President Barack Obama made the same commitment. But today,
a quarter-century after the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, the United States is planning to spend $1 trillion over the next three decades to replace or upgrade virtually all of its strategic nuclear weapons.
At the same time, Russia also has undertaken ambitious plans to upgrade its strategic nuclear forces with new multi-warhead missiles, aircraft, submarines, and even a rumored nuclear underwater drone.
Former Defense Secretary William Perry, who lived through the last nuclear build-up, argues that the resumption of strategic nuclear competition will waste vast sums of money; worse, it will not only fail to provide greater security for either country, but also exacerbate growing tensions between them and make their relationship less stable.
The only credible and legitimate mission for nuclear weapons is to deter a nuclear attack on the United States or on treaty allies ("extended deterrence'). For these missions, the United States, as President Obama declared in 2013, only needs to maintain a force of 1,000 deployed strategic warheads, instead of the 1,550 it is allowed under New START.
The president's nuclear math is fine—the mistake he made was deciding to maintain a smaller force by modernizing every leg of the nuclear triad for the next 30 years: a next-generation strategic bomber, a new generation of nuclear submarines armed with Trident missiles, and an upgrade of land-based ICBMs, along with modernization of the air-delivered B-61 bomb and development of a new nuclear cruise missile for the strategic bomber force.
Instead, to produce greater stability, lower the risks of an arms race, and conserve resources, the Pentagon should immediately retire the 500 land-based ICBMs. As fixed targets, they are vulnerable to attack and therefore only useful if launched first. They add only 500 reentry vehicles to the US strategic force.
Whether to repurpose the strategic bomber force for exclusively conventional missions is a more difficult issue. Bombers, some analysts argue, give the triad flexibility, as they provide an opportunity to signal resolve in a crisis and additional targeting options. However, that very flexibility may actually weaken deterrence, causing a reaction by the adversary that leads to a first strike or a direct attack on the bombers themselves.
In addition, the accuracy today of high explosive conventional weapons on a bomber may make nuclearization unnecessary. At the very least, a decision should be made to defer spending $10 billion to add strategic nuclear capabilities to the next-generation bomber, since the current bomber fleet provides adequate capability.
The United States would get more usable bang for the buck if the entire strategic bomber force were gradually converted for conventional missions over the next decade. It is neither necessary nor economical to invest in a new long-range strategic bomber when the fleet of B-52s can operate effectively for at least another 20 years.
The Pentagon should also scrap plans to modernize the B-61 nuclear bomb and develop a new nuclear cruise missile for the strategic bombers. The older but refurbished B61 models are more than adequate, and nuclear cruise missiles, because they are indistinguishable from conventionally armed cruise missiles, could actually lower the threshold for nuclear use.
The most expensive but most stable leg of the nuclear triad is the fleet of stealthy and highly survivable ballistic missile submarines, which provides the National Command Authority with a great deal of targeting flexibility.
However, the Navy's plan to build 12 new SSBNs exceeds the needs of deterrence. Each new sub will carry 16 missiles that can be loaded with up to 8 independently targetable warheads for a maximum total capability of 1,500 nuclear warheads.
Some experts worry that relying exclusively on SSBNs for nuclear deterrence will cause a loss of redundancy in the force if there is an across the board failure in both warheads for the Trident missiles or a catastrophic breakthrough in Russian anti-submarine warfare capabilities.
But the risk of these developments is extremely remote in light of the heavy investment the United States makes in its nuclear stockpile stewardship program and in preventing Russian breakthroughs—and certainly not high enough to justify the additional expenditures.
There are multiple reasons to cut back on the existing modernization plan. Eight or nine submarines, plus several thousand strategic warheads in reserve, are more than adequate for the deterrence mission.
Eliminating the ICBM and ultimately the nuclear bomber forces could free up as much as $60 billion over the next ten years, savings that could be applied to buying the forces appropriate to our real defense challenges.
At minimal risk to US security, it could offer an opportunity to open conversations with the Russians about mutual restraint and a renewed effort to reduce the two largest strategic nuclear forces in the world.
The administration's nuclear plan is a serious walk-back on the president's original commitment. It would keep strategic warheads within the New START limits, but at an unnecessarily high cost and with an increased risk of strategic instability.
This White House has caved to the nuclear priesthood in the bureaucracy. Instead of staying on nuclear autopilot, the next administration needs to fundamentally rethink the role of nuclear weapons in US national security strategy, the costs of implementing the current strategic force modernization program, and the alternatives that could provide greater stability and less risk of nuclear conflict at a much lower cost.
Gordon Adams is distinguished fellow at the Stimson Center and professor emeritus at the School of International Service, American University. From 1993-97 he was the senior White House budget official for national security programs.
Richard Sokolsky is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. From 1990-97, he was the director of the State Department's Office of Strategic Policy and Negotiations.
Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.
In an Era of Cheap Drones,
US Can't Afford Exquisite Weapons
T. X. Hammes / Defense One.com
(January 19, 2016) -- Various technological advances are about to make hundred-drone swarms a reality, and a nightmare for today's top-of-the-line weapons.
Even as the world is experiencing a proliferation of smart, small, and inexpensive products in a widening range of fields, the Department of Defense continues to pursue a buying strategy of fewer but more exquisite systems.
Our budget debate needs to shift. Rather than simply arguing about more money for legacy systems, we need to think through how we will gradually phase them out over the next decades while using the savings to shift to a new approach to war.
Today, the vast majority of US procurement spending goes toward very mature weapons: F-35s, LRS-Bs, aircraft carriers, and systems that support them. These technologies came to the fore in the 1930s and '40s.
Unfortunately, even massive investment in mature technologies brings only minor increases in capability. One oft-expressed rule of thumb is that the last 5 percent of capability adds 50 percent to the cost of a weapon.
This is of particular concern because of the rapid advances in robotics and artificial intelligence, additive manufacturing and nanoexplosives, composite materials and energy-reflecting coatings, and improved energy densities in gel fuels. Taken together, these technologies mean that long-range, autonomous, stealthy, precision weapons will soon be cheap and ubiquitous.
These new systems will challenge the dominance of the last century's weapons and change warfare dramatically at the operational and tactical levels.
Already, commercial firms are creating drones that use a variety of sensors to autonomously execute tasks ranging from agricultural spraying to ocean surveillance to air freight. With minor modifications, these drones can become improvised explosive devices (IEDs) that actively hunt US forces. Because the systems are commercial, they are available to almost anyone.
Even small numbers of intelligent, mobile IEDs would be a major problem for US forces -- yet tech trends indicate we could face tens of thousands of such drones on the battlefield.
We're several years past the ability to 3D-print a drone in a single day; researchers are now refining prototype systems that can print 25 to 100 times faster than that. A single small facility with only 10 such printers will soon be able to produce 1,000 drones a day. These will be autonomous weapons that can attack with precision to destroy vehicles, parked aircraft, fuel, and ammunition stores.
Nor are drones limited to the air. The US Navy is investing in underwater "gliding" drones that are projected to operate for five years without refueling. Current commercial versions sell for about $100,000 but costs are falling very rapidly.
These underwater drones could be developed into self-deploying mines or torpedoes. In short, the presence of numerous inexpensive, autonomous air and sea drones will soon be an inescapable part of the battlefield.
In contrast, the United States is focusing on producing a very few exquisite systems. When fully operational, the F-35 will bring a leap in capability. However, a creative enemy might choose not to fight the F-35 in the air but instead send cheap drones to hunt them at their air bases. These relatively inexpensive drones will rely on sheer numbers.
If an enemy prints 1,000 a day, he doesn't care if 500 suffer in-flight failures. Nor does he care you shoot down another 300 near your airfield. He still has 200 hunting a couple of dozen F-35 revetments. If those are not available, the drones can autonomously switch their aim points to radar antennae, fuel points, or ammunition sites.
The United States cannot overcome swarms of autonomous weapons by increasing our production of old weapons. A parallel might be drawn with the US Navy's pre-World War II focus on battleships, which produced behemoths that were far more capable (and expensive) than their World War I predecessors yet proved largely helpless against the revolutionary new technologies of naval aviation.
Today, our own focus on improving the weapons of the past is leading us astray. As our weapons become ever more exquisite, we can afford fewer and fewer. Bomber proponents say we need 100 to 200 LRS-Bs, but a realistic appraisal of the last 40 years of US aircraft development and production indicates we will purchase many fewer -- perhaps as few as the 21 B-2s. Meanwhile, commercial firms are creating drones that can deliver precision fires at ranges over 1,000 miles.
Like previous technological revolutions, this one will roll out over the next decade or two. There is still time to change direction to meet it -- just as the prewar Navy ultimately began to invest heavily in aviation, and won, instead of lost, the coming war.
Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.