D. Dowd Muska


How About an Effective and Affordable Deterrent?

February 11, 2016

It’s a trillion-dollar nuclear attack, and it’s targeting American taxpayers.

No one knows the precise price tag for modernizing the triad, but a 13-figure sum isn’t an unreasonable prediction. A costly overhaul is necessary, the Congressional Budget Office reported, because our warhead-delivery platforms are getting rusty: “The first Minuteman III ICBMs entered service in 1970, the first Ohio class [submarine] was commissioned in 1981, the first B-52H bombers were built in the early 1960s, and the B-2 bomber first flew in 1989.”

Fedpols and bureaucrats have known for a long time that new systems were needed, but very little money has been set aside. Preferring to buy fighters, choppers, ground vehicles, and conventional munitions for the fool’s errand of pacifying and democratizing the Middle East, the military-industrial-congressional complex has neglected nuclear deterrence. The policy of procrastination is finally being addressed -- but in predictably expensive and inept ways.

Four hundred and fifty Minuteman IIIs are deployed at three bases across the northern plains. (Sounds like a lot, but in the 1960s, the Air Force wanted 10,000 missiles.) The Pentagon has chosen to procure a new ICBM rather than extend the life of the Minuteman. Allowing for spares and testing, well over 600 next-generation missiles will be bought. Fixed silos are the standard today, but mobile launchers are under consideration for at least some of the new ICBMs.

The Long Range Strike Bomber (LRSB) is an ambitious program to replace the conventional and nuclear missions of the B-1, B-2, and B-52. Last fall, Northrop Grumman beat a Boeing-Lockheed Martin team for the contract, which will probably involve 80 to 100 units. The bomber is slated to carry a new cruise missile as well as a refurbished version of the B-61, an old-school bomb that relies on gravity.

Finally, the Navy’s plan is to replace its current subs with the SSBN-X fleet. The u-boats will have impressively enhanced powers, including electric-drive propulsion, and no need to journey back to port for refueling. Construction of the first sub is set to begin in 2021, with an optimistic initial-deployment date of 2027.

The life-cycle cost for these weapons is anyone’s guess. But decades of “schedule slippage” and hideous cost overruns on far simpler systems do not inspire confidence in the DOD’s ability to build a modernized nuclear deterrent with minimal collateral damage to taxpayers. The triad, many now believe, should go, because an a-bomb architecture that was cobbled together in the days of Buck Turgidson makes no sense in the 21st century.

In a new paper for the Center for American Progress, Lawrence J. Korb and Adam Mount argue that ICBMs “are of little relevance to strategic stability today. They are increasingly unlikely ever to be used and do little to help the most pressing extended-deterrence problems that the United States faces today. These considerations have already shrunk the size of the ICBM force to less than half of its Cold War peak, and officials expect to make further reductions in the coming years.” The defense wonks recommend skipping the new ICBM, at least for now, in exchange for making “the investments necessary to refurbish the Minuteman missiles in their existing silos.”

Benjamin H. Friedman, Christopher Preble, and Matt Fay, in a 2013 Cato Institute paper, went much further. They favored nothing less than a full phasing-out of ICBMs, despite the inevitable enmity of “legislators representing constituencies where Minuteman missiles are based and … the various communities that provide ICBM-related technologies or service.”

As for the LRSB, Korb and Mount pose the pesky question of “why a penetrating bomber requires a standoff capability.” In other words, a new cruise missile, to be fired from afar, “is an expensive redundancy that is unlikely ever to be used.” Friedman, Preble, and Fay, advocating all-but-invulnerable submarines alone for deterrence, noted that “Air Force leaders acknowledge … that the new bomber’s cost could lead to its cancellation, which is one reason that they proposed building it initially without the capability to deliver nuclear weapons.”

Big, scary bombs are an absolute must for any country that claims to make the protection of citizens its top priority. So nukes are necessary, and it’s ludicrous to believe that they’ll vanish in our -- or our grandchildren’s -- lifetimes.

But how much is too much? Outside the triad’s community of ideological and paycheck-based supporters, it’s becoming clear that a massive empire of warhead-delivery tools is unnecessary and unaffordable. There’s a reasonable middle ground between disarmament dreamers and hysterical threat-inflators. Let’s find it.

D. Dowd Muska (www.dowdmuska.com) writes about government, economics, and technology. Follow him on Twitter @dowdmuska.

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