The prolific Loren Thompson, now with a stable e-publishing platform at Lexington, Forbes, and AOL Defense, goes U.S. Navy native in
shilling for submarine-based nuclear deterrence discussing America’s nuclear strategy, that is, the triad. He first offers
[L]et’s be realistic — how much of a deterrent can 60 nuclear-capable bombers located at a handful of bases be? They’re so vulnerable that they could easily be wiped out in a first strike, and even if they weren’t their ability to reach targets in a real nuclear exchange is problematic. As for the 450 Minuteman missiles that make up the other land-based leg of the arsenal, their locations are well known and the number of warheads they carry has dwindled to a small portion of the nuclear arsenal, so their future contribution to deterrence is uncertain too. A clever attacker might be able to collapse the communications links to both land-based parts of the triad, leaving them without the authority to launch.
Where to begin? Let’s start with the bombers and use an analogy: Israel. Does Israel have nuclear weapons? According to Jimmy Carter, yes. Does Israel have any method of delivering these weapons other than aircraft? I reserve the right to be corrected, but I’d guess aircraft are the main, and perhaps the only delivery method. Does Israel create or sustain a deterrent effect with these weapons? I’d offer they do.
Now on the other hand, number-wise, U.S. bombers ain’t what they used to be. Don’t believe me? Then go look up “UAV” in Wikipedia. The future is unmanned and Curtis LeMay is not the CINCSAC or CSAF.
However, the implication that bombers will be caught on-the-ground ignores the fact that a total nuclear war ‘bolt out of the blue’ (not to be confused with a ‘blot out of the blue’ as the autocorrect might offer) does not reflect the realities of either strategic or tactical nuclear warning.
Our ground and space-based warning and detection systems are quite capable but even before that, we can see events (that is, increasing hostilities, troop movements and posturing, etc.) as they unfold on the world stage. Having bombers caught on the ground—which would also require multiple locations to be struck simultaneously across the United States—is unlikely at best and preposterous at worst. Now as for the bomber always getting through, history shows that Thompson is on much firmer ground yet bombers still have their own advantages: they can be recalled and they can be easily used for non-nuclear missions.
As for the Minuteman fleet, yes the numbers of warheads have dwindled but that’s because of national-level political decisions. Could they be re-MIRV’d? Of course, providing the weapons themselves are ready (in number and condition) to be deployed. But could a clever attacker hit 450 separate targets with enough weapons to assure their destruction? I don’t see how: it’s like the bombers-on-the-ground thing made more difficult by an order of magnitude. We’d have to be not just asleep at the switch, but in a deep-coma at the switch, or more likely, somehow already dead at the switch.
Similarly, Thompson seems to ignore the fact there are redundant communications methods. “Collapsing the links” would entail that the links be similarly collapsed for the submarines. And while we’re at it, does Thompson think the submarines can launch their nuclear weapons without proper authorization?
The bottom line is that each leg of the triad has its own relative strengths and weaknesses. And yet the weaknesses of the submarine-based part of the triad—uncertainty and cost—are completely (uncertainty) or largely (cost) ignored.
[S]ubmarines carrying ballistic missiles [are] the most survivable and reliable component of the [nuclear] deterrent force.
The survivable part of the statement is currently true but reliability is more than how many successful launches you’ve had and normally includes other factors (like operational availability which still may or may not favor SLBMs). Having a hundred successful operational tests in a row is great, but if the SLBMs at sea are tagged off or are otherwise not mission ready, how much does it matter? And why does Thompson have such an obvious bias towards the sea-based part of the triad? Is it because Lockheed-Martin makes the D-5 missile (which gets a plug in the article) and Thompson does work for them?
Still, submarines indeed offer at least one significant advantage; they’re hard to find (as of today).
But as for the Navy believing their own press releases “the nation’s only day-to-day assured nuclear response capability,” they need to set their three cups of kool-aid down and ponder if breakthroughs or even simple improvements in anti-submarine warfare might not impact their ability to do the job in the future.
Additionally, there’s that darn cost issue. It is intuitive that things that can be done on the ground (ICBMs) are going to be cheaper than things that do the same mission in the air (bombers) or under the water (boomers). That’s why a dispersed, road or rail mobile land-based ICBM made great sense; it offered the targeting difficulties of a sub at a land-based ICBM cost.
So I’d offer the real intent of the article is posturing to prepare the budget battlefield. Why? Because the boomers are so darn expensive. How expensive? North of $8 billion each, and that’s without any missiles. And no boomers (or more likely, reduced boomers) means far fewer of those Lockheed-Martin produced D-5 SLBMs.
While total nuclear war is one of the most consequential national security issues (behind the collapse of society and the economy), it also one of the least likely. Leadership is all about setting priorities and priorities are all about how the time and money are spent.