Nuclear Deterrence Remains Key Stratcom Mission, Commander Says
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
OFFUTT AIR FORCE BASE, Neb., Apr. 5, 2013 Twenty-five years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and with the United States and Russia committed to deep cuts in their already-reduced nuclear arsenals, some might be tempted to think U.S. Strategic Command’s most important mission is fading into the history books.
A B-2 Spirit bomber is towed to a parking spot at Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii. The B-2 is a key element of the U.S. nuclear triad, which includes ballistic missile submarines, intercontinental ballistic missiles, nuclear-capable heavy bombers and associated aerial tankers, and the assured warning and command-and-control system that interconnects them. U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Shane A. Cuomo
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Maintaining a credible nuclear deterrent -- and the ability to operate its nuclear capabilities effectively if directed by the president -- was a foundation of U.S. national security throughout the Cold War, said Air Force Gen. C. Robert Kehler, the Stratcom commander.
Yet Stratcom’s nuclear deterrence mission remains as critical as at any time in U.S. history, Kehler said, injected with a renewed focus and sense of urgency by the president’s 2010 Nuclear Posture Review and the new national defense strategy.
So even as the United States began withdrawing numerous weapons abroad, deactivated entire classes of weapons and reduced its nuclear stockpile by 75 percent since the height of the Cold War, it has ensured that it maintains sufficient deterrent capability.
“As long as nuclear weapons exist, U.S. Strategic Command’s top priority must be to deter nuclear attack with a safe, secure and effective strategic nuclear deterrent force,” Kehler told the House and Senate armed services committees earlier this month.
Kehler’s job is to look across the entire nuclear enterprise to ensure it remains operationally viable, and to verify the safety and effectiveness of the nuclear weapons stockpile. That includes the triad of ballistic missile submarines, intercontinental ballistic missiles, nuclear-capable heavy bombers and associated aerial tankers, and the assured warning and command-and-control system that interconnects them.
“I can assure you that today’s nuclear weapons and triad of delivery platforms are safe, secure and effective,” Kehler reported in testimony to the congressional panels.
Looking to the future, he said, the challenge will be to modernize and sustain the myriad aspects of the nuclear enterprise: from delivery systems and stockpile surveillance activities to upgrades to the nuclear command, control and communications capabilities.
“Our nuclear weapons and platforms are aging and are in need of either modernization or recapitalization, the majority occurring within the next 10 to 20 years,” Navy Cmdr. Robert Thomas Jr., Stratcom’s deputy division chief for global strike capabilities, resources and integration, told American Forces Press Service.
“We are talking about every platform -- the bombers, the submarines and intercontinental ballistic missiles -- and also every weapon employed on those platforms,” Thomas said.
So Stratcom is working with the services and its interagency partners to develop a replacement for the Ohio-class submarine and to modernize or replace the Minuteman III ICBM and the B-52 Stratofortress and B-2 Spirit bombers, as well as the weapons they deliver.
“We are not talking about developing any new capabilities or new weapons. That is not what we are doing,” Thomas emphasized. “What we are doing is maintaining the capability of our nuclear deterrent.”
That deterrent remains vital, he said, not only to the United States, but also to the allies and partners it has pledged to protect.
Based on this threat and the approaching end of much of the U.S. nuclear infrastructure’s life-cycle, Thomas said, Stratcom’s efforts aren’t occurring a minute too soon.
The Ohio-class submarines that are capable of launching ballistic missiles are slated to operate through the late 2020s and early 2030s. At that point, they will have reached their maximum life expectancy, serving for 42 years -- longer than any other submarine in Navy history.
“Last year’s decision to delay the Ohio-class replacement program by two years is all the risk I would recommend in this critical program,” Kehler said during his congressional testimony.
Replacement submarines are being developed now, with the first of 12 on schedule for delivery in 2031, just as the Ohio-class subs they replace go into retirement.
Meanwhile, Stratcom is working with the Air Force to determine whether to replace or extend the life of the Minuteman III ICBMs that have been in service since the 1970s. The current system has undergone several modernization programs since it was fielded, Thomas said, and Congress has mandated that the current force remain viable and credible through the 2030 timeframe.
A study of alternatives to sustain the ground-based leg of the triad beyond 2030 is underway.
The Air Force also is assessing how to modernize the nuclear-capable B-52 and B-2 bombers. The B-52 has undergone several modernization programs since it was first fielded in the early 1950s, and is expected to remain in service through 2040. The B-2, introduced in the late 1990s, will require similar efforts to remain viable into the 2050 timeframe, Thomas said.
In addition, Stratcom is working with the National Nuclear Security Administration to ensure the weapons development under its purview meets the command’s strategic requirements.
“We are fairly unique in our role as a combatant command in looking holistically across the entire enterprise and making sure all these activities remain synchronized and aligned so we don’t have capability gaps,” Thomas said.
This synchronizing mission presents challenges in terms of not only budget constraints, but also of manufacturing capability to make it all happen within the required timeframe. “Schedules are important, because it does no good to deliver a weapon at the wrong time,” Thomas said. “And if a platform or weapon is aging out, we have to have its replacement ahead of time so we can be confident the system works as designed to meet the mission requirements.”
Further complicating the effort is the Nuclear Posture Review’s emphasis on refurbishing existing nuclear weapons capabilities rather than developing new ones. Thomas said he recognizes the rationale, with the intent of reducing U.S. reliance on nuclear weapons as part of its national security strategy. “Building new weapons is not in line with that strategy or that position,” he said.
Thomas compared the current approach to driving a 1965 Mustang that’s been refitted with new systems and replacements for parts no longer made. Essentially, it’s still a 1965 Mustang, he said, but now it relies on modern parts to keep running.
“In many respects, it would be a lot easier to go out and buy a new car, but we can’t do that. We have to maintain the car we have,” he said.
Another complication is the unilateral moratorium the United States has maintained on nuclear testing for the past two decades. This, Kehler told Congress, presents the challenge of certifying the effectiveness and reliability of nuclear weapons without actually testing them with nuclear explosions.
He noted advances in the computer simulations, modeling and other scientific and surveillance programs used instead for testing, and the importance of attracting the proper talent pool to the mission to sustain it into the future.
“We’ve got to maintain the science that underpins those weapons,” Kehler told Congress. “We’ve got to make sure we are sustaining those weapons and surveilling those weapons as they age, as well as introducing life-extension programs as needed.
Ensuring the viability of the U.S. nuclear enterprise provides deterrence and, should that fail, gives the president options in how to deploy forces, Thomas said. But it also helps stem proliferation by assuring U.S. allies and partners, he added, so they do not feel a need to pursue their own nuclear-weapon capability.
“So it is as important now -- and perhaps even more important in a world that is more uncertain -- and into the future that we maintain a very credible nuclear force,” he said. “And as long as we have these weapons, we are ensuring that they are safe, secure, credible and effective. And we are taking the appropriate steps to accomplish that.”