Aviation Week & Space Technology

Podcast: Modernizing U.S. Nuclear Forces

Discuss this Video 23

on Nov 3, 2016

Do we need to modernize ALL of our deterrent systems at once?

Let us look at the problems that must be overcome by any deterrent system.

The basic problem is to expunge anyone who attacks us. That is a function of the number of targets necessary to reduce them to an 18th century power. That defines the necessary number of warheads to be delivered.

The viability of a delivery system is a function of:

1. Survivability - 1.0 for SLBM to perhaps .01 for bombers on the ground (Ps).
2. Launch Reliability - the chance the delivery system will be launched (Pl).
3. In Flight Reliability - the chance nothing will go wrong in flight (Pif).
4. Penetration Ability - the chances of not being intercepted (Pa).
5. Weapon Reliability - How likely is a loud bang to occur (Pd).

Probability of Arrival (Pa) is: Ps X Pl X Pif X Pa = Probability of Arrival.

Then you need to know what the Damage Expectancy is.

Probability of Arrival (Pa) X Probability of Detonation (Pd) = Damage Expectancy (DE).
This assumes the CEP (accuracy) and Yield of the weapon are sufficient to destroy it.

As most if not all Variables are ≥ 1 that is why if you see a bright flash followed by a big boom, stay under cover as a second will arrive soon after depending upon deconfliction time.

This is why the number of delivery systems/weapons has to be at least twice the number of essential targets. Perhaps three or four times if your stuff is real junk or their Ps is pathetic..

So basically it makes no fiscal sense to replace old systems unless a very compelling reason is offered.

Simply supplying a profit stream for defense contractors is not compelling given our current national debt and continuing war on terrorism.

Ditto simply preserving all legacy types of systems just because there is a service community that was present when SIOP-62 was devised.

Indeed the abysmal Probability of Survival (Ps) of bombers and ICBMs argues strongly against wasting any money on new ones.

on Nov 3, 2016

And what are you basing these probabilities for survival on? Something has gone horribly wrong if most of the bombers are still on the ground by the time Russian or Chinese ICBMs are impacting. Our strategic bomber force has also seen a ton of use outside of their role in the nuclear triad. They've easily been useful enough in conventional conflicts to justify new bombers.

Despite the best efforts of everybody working on the B-52s even those old warhorses can't last forever.

For silo-based ICBMs it's more about maintaining that industrial capability presuming SLBM numbers don't decline. Yet there is something to be said for having the complete triad.

on Nov 4, 2016

Mark just shows that math was never his strong point.

on Nov 4, 2016

One of the cheap and easy fixes for the imbalance between the Russian deployed strategic nuclear loadout and ours (never mind the Chinese arsenal, continually growing and unaddressed by New START) is simply to withdraw from New START, and stop pretending arms control does anything but give an advantage to the least scrupulous partner in any arms control scheme.

Russia's always cheated on arms control treaties, from SALT to the Biological Weapons Convention and the Chemical Weapons Convention (where it used Nunn-Lugar Threat Reduction funds to make Novichok nerve agents AFTER the end of Soviet communism). They can't be trusted on arms control more than anything else. And arms control advocates are looking increasingly moronic in their attempts to continue imposing strategic inferiority on the West.

on Nov 4, 2016

A lot of that makes good sense. But continue to use the vast plains with a mobile system for spunge-soaking incoming warheads. Even a mobile system that is sparsely populated with real missiles and lots of dummies could not be ignored by the enemy. I do have a concern about complacency of SLBMs. As UUV technology evolves, the ocean could soon be swarming with these menaces that even the quietest of subs would not be able to avoid. At least that's what I'd be concentrating on if I were Chinese or Russian. So your Ps for SLBM would be decreasing as a function of time, unless addressed appropriately with upgraded technology.

on Nov 4, 2016

"Something has gone horribly wrong if most of the bombers are still on the ground by the time Russian or Chinese ICBMs are impacting."

What portion of the bombers are on nuclear alert at any time? What is the flight time of a depressed trajectory SLBM? Such are Probability of Survival issues.

What is the time to change the load out of a B-52 supporting operations in the middle east for a nuclear mission? What percentage of bombers are undergoing maintenance at any one time?

Such considerations affect both Ps and Probability of launch estimates.

If we were at a high level of alert the Ps and Pl would improve significantly. Still determining our necessary retaliatory assets must be based upon a Bolt From the Blue attack upon us.

Only the bombers on active alert may be depended upon for a reasonable chance of survival and launch in the case of a Bolt From the Blue attack.

"Our strategic bomber force has also seen a ton of use outside of their role in the nuclear triad."

That is a very valid argument. A B-52 can take more to the party than any other asset.

"For silo-based ICBMs it's more about maintaining that industrial capability presuming SLBM numbers don't decline."

ICBM silos have been sitting ducks for 40 years, since the 15A14 (R-36M, SS-18) was deployed. Now much smaller warheads with better CEPs are capable of destroying them. Unless we launch on warning it is not practical to plan upon most Minutemen surviving.

The "industrial base" is secure with plenty of continuing production of large solids for SLVs.

"Despite the best efforts of everybody working on the B-52s even those old warhorses can't last forever."

True and as stated I consider the conventional role a strong argument for bombers.

As part of nuclear deterrent the only good argument for bombers is as a cross-targeting asset, and then as a ALCM platform. Depending upon what portion of our deterrent force is expended upon Russian or Chinese air defenses the small number of alert aircraft will have a better or worse Penetration Ability.

The question is in retaliation do we expend a warhead on an air defense site or an industrial/population target? SIOP-62 used a sizable portion of the Polaris missiles available to clear the way for SACs bombers. But the day when bombers were the overwhelming portion of deliverable megatons are long gone.

The "Triad," a concept invented by SAC in the age where bomber generals ruled the SIOP; was mostly a matter of service politics, justifying the continued support for bombers, than strategic necessity.

SIOP-62 had bombers, ICBMs, and SLBMs so we still do today.

The current reality is that by far our best retaliatory assets are our SLBMs. The Trident D-5 is also our best preemptive counter force asset.

In the case of a US preemptive attack both bombers and ICBMs would be useful.

But if we did not preempt during the Cuban Missile Crisis when the Soviets were weak; why would we preempt now when the retaliation would destroy much of our population and industrial base?

on Nov 4, 2016

This is a very insightful post (of course, I think so because it's also my opinion). Submarine-launched ICBMs are, dollar for dollar, the most effective way to hold strategic targets at risk. Depressed-trajectory ICBMs and Russia's fine line of penetration bombers are more than enough to dent the land-based legs of our "strategic triad" badly.

Downloading MIRVed ICBMs didn't help, nor did retiring Peacekeeper just after it'd been fully implemented. Both were signals of weakness, and we're seeing that Putin and his generals reacted in the predictable way to weakness - by seizing an advantage that didn't cost them very much.

Herman Kahn's very readable book On Thermonuclear War has stood the test of time since its publication in 1960 (I own a first printing of that book, and go back to it from time to time to be amazed at the durability of his insights).

Everything Mark says here is true; strategic bombers are only useful when pre-emption of an enemy nuclear attack is a plausible policy. Otherwise, they can be taken out of play by an adversary we've allowed the advantage by not deploying the Sprint ABM (which would just sit quietly in its silos until a nuclear attack, by which time its warhead's tiny fallout wouldn't be an issue in a post-nuclear atmosphere lousy with fission products and neutron-activated debris from ICBMs which had hit their targets).

We could take advantage of the large number of airline hubs we now have to base some of those bombers away from their wings' air bases (Colorado Air National Guard did that with their F-16's in the first decade of the 21st century, basing at airports surrounding Buckley AFB in metro Denver). Some hubs might appreciate the business; some of them were disestablished SAC bases to begin with and have the right kind of runways.

In the time since the original development of the Sprint and Safeguard ABMs, nuclear-tipped ABMs have actually become more and more practical as propulsion and guidance technology has improved. The single best thing we could do is emulate the Russians in this regard and deploy nuclear-tipped ABMs to increase kill probability of a mid-course or late-stage intercept to very close to unity. We'd be able to do that with single launches per inbound (unlike Patriot, which launches in pairs to engage inbounds). Antimissile lasers, mounted on long-loiter time drones or even freight aircraft (such as the CRAF air freighters now partially funded by DoD as a strategic reserve transport capacity) and controlled by NORAD could offer a valuable added layer to our ability to intercept and kill incoming enemy nuclear fire.

Between providing more targets for the enemy to cover with a first strike and making that strike less likely to pre-empt a retaliation by our bomber force, we could make new bomber repay the massive investment they'd require. Buying new bombers as a jobs program for defense contractors with no intent to use them to best defend our nation isn't a good choice.

The advocates of arms control will say, as they always have, that ABMs are a destabilizing technology, but their success in imposing unilateral drawdowns in our strategic nuclear capacity while Russia built its own up has proven to be the truly destabilizing factor in arms control.

on Nov 4, 2016

Our 450 Minutemen will be replaced by 400 next generation silo based ICBMs. But they will remain sitting ducks in their fixed silos, waiting for certain destruction in a Russian first strike. The Russians and Chinese know better, and are increasingly mobile-basing their land based missiles with obvious survival improvement. Our vast open spaces in the upper plains and mountain states would allow for effective mobile basing, and the higher cost per missile could be offset by fewer deployed launchers due to higher survivability. Most importantly, higher survivability would reduce the danger of launch on warning.

on Nov 4, 2016

The existing base reservations at F.E. Warren and Barksdale AFBs are good places to start mobile basing (not sure how big Minot and Whiteman AFBs are for that). Improvements in probable error of ICBM guidance make basing launchers on barges transiting the Great Lakes, Mississippi River and Intracoastal Waterway attractive options - being inland waterways, not very susceptible to enemy submarine attack (although in the 1970s, there were rumors that Soviet subs had gotten most of the way up the Mississippi to New Orleans, which is a home port and logistical hub for the US Navy and for seaborne transport of armored vehicles and other heavy ordnance - Textron makes light armored vehicles just outside the city).

Rather than hand LockMart several billions of dollars to make another static target, it's time to see if we can spend that money on technology which makes a first strike less advantageous to our enemies and nuclear war less probable.

on Nov 4, 2016

Mark, I think you've made the better argument. IMHO the money needed for a new ICBM would be spent on an ABM system geared to North Korea, Iran and other smaller nuclear powers .... a system that might actually work, as opposed to what we've got now.

on Nov 4, 2016

This figure is an old one - but doesn't most of the current bomber force need three days of warning to be ready for a nuclear exchange?

on Nov 4, 2016

That's a highly optimistic figure depending on rates of mission readiness for the ground crews to generate nuclear sorties we're unlikely to have in real life. Shifting B-2 and B-52 to conventional missions hasn't helped there (although on balance, it's good the crews are busy with those aircraft in general).

I think if we could get the time to be nuclear-ready DOWN to three days, it'd be reason for a celebration. And, of course, depressed-trajectory ICBM and penetration bombers could destroy Strategic Command's bases before the President was able to send the go-codes for a launch.

on Nov 4, 2016

Beantownbilly, a missile in a silo is out of public sight and therefore out of mind. A missile that might roll through a town is a cause for hysterics and public demonstrations and all the noise that no administration wants to deal with.

on Nov 4, 2016

Clearly, the impediment to mobile basing is the lack of leadership necessary to overcome the optics. However, more than 50% of all land west of the Mississippi is controlled by state and federal governments and sparsly populated. I bet smart folks could find space to manage 300 mobile launcers, which would take space comparable to one long freight train. Could fit on the vast federal bases, such as Area 51. No need to run launchers down mainstreet.

on Nov 4, 2016

Barksdale and F.E. Warren AFBs sit on huge reservations where mobile launchers could tool around all day without a protester ever seeing them. Of course, part of the problem is that the Executive Branch of the US Government is actually controlled by the party to which those protesters belong. No one will ever know how much of that party's finances are provided by governments aiming nuclear weapons at us.

on Nov 4, 2016

There were a number of mobile basing schemes devised for Peacemaker from rail based, to a an elaborate system of tunnels, to a very large number of shelters which the missiles would be shuffled between.

Each system has serious flaws.

The BIG problem was Not In My Back Yard.

The plan was to base them in Utah. Public outrage led to proposal to base them in Nevada as well. Two states in public outrage.

The folks where silos are today have grown used to being targets.

The folks where there is enough open space don't want a Designated Ground Zero next door.

More than that, how would closing vast areas of Nevada and/or Utah set with the Bundy family and supporters given the current agitation against the US Government holding title to any land in the west much less closing off vast tracts currently open to public use, grazing, lumbering, and mining?

One problem with mobile ICBMs is security. each rail car, or Transporter Erector Launcher, has to be kept secure and that means security forces present 24/7; whereas a limited force may be deployed by helicopter between the time a silo perimeter is breached and entry into the silo could be achieved.

America's first intercontinental missile, the hapless Snark, was designed to be mobile but was never deployed that way. Rail basing was planned for Minuteman but aside from a Lionel toy train it never happened. There were tests of an air launched Minuteman but that too was a bad idea.

The big argument for land based ICBMs is that they are the cheapest deterrent by far. Make them mobile and the price goes up fast.

Just some of the reasons that the USA has never deployed a mobile ICBM.

on Nov 4, 2016

"One of the cheap and easy fixes for the imbalance between the Russian deployed strategic nuclear loadout and ours. . ."

The number of US weapons compared to Russian weapons does not matter.

The number of US weapons to Russian targets is what is important.

Arguing they have 11 and we only have 10 disregards reality.

The important factor is does our number of weapons which will arrive and detonate; Ps X Pl X Pif X Pa X Pd X 2 or 3, exceed the number of Russian targets equalling ¼ to ⅓ of their industry and population centers?

There are 319 cities in Russia with a population over 50,000.

The USN has 14 Ohio class Fleet Ballistic Missile Submarines. At any time 9 or 10 are at sea. Each has 24 Trident D-5 missiles each having between 8 and 12 Multiple Independently Targetable Warheads.

Thus 9 FBMS x 24 missiles X 8 warheads = 1728 nuclear weapons vs 319 cities = Assured Destruction of sufficient industrial production and population to reduce Russia to a third world nation for many generations = Deterrence.

Sources:
US Strategic Command: stratcom.mil/factsheets/
US Navy FBMS: navy.mil/navydata/fact_display.asp?cid=4100&tid=200&ct=4
US Navy Trident D-5: navy.mil/navydata/fact_display.asp?cid=2200&tid=1400&ct=2
List of Russian Cities over 50,000 population: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_cities_and_towns_in_Russia_by_population

on Nov 4, 2016

Lots of words by people who seem to have little understanding of strategic deterrence

on Nov 4, 2016

It is estimated that, since 1945, the United States produced more than 70,000 nuclear warheads, which is more than all other nuclear weapon states combined. The Soviet Union/Russia has produced approximately 55,000 nuclear warheads since 1949, France built 1110 warheads since 1960, the United Kingdom built 835 warheads since 1952, China built about 600 warheads since 1964, and other nuclear powers built fewer than 500 warheads all together since they developed their first nuclear weapons.

Peak US stockpile - 31,255 warheads (1967)

Current stockpile (useable and not) 4,500

The reason why the US had 30,000 plus warheads at one time???

Because no one knew how many would actually work, survive, reach their target, etc - each target was assigned 12 to 14 warheads

folks used to call it strategic overkill

on Nov 4, 2016

one graphic Khan used demonstrated that in order for the Russians to take out 50% of 25 soft SAC bases 200 missiles would be required - meaning that the surviving 50% would retaliate (pages 194 - 195 On Thermonuclear War, ISBN 978-1-4128-0664-0, Transaction Publishers, 2007, introduction by Evan Jones)

on Nov 5, 2016

"The reason why the US had 30,000 plus warheads at one time???
Because no one knew how many would actually work, survive, reach their target, etc - each target was assigned 12 to 14 warheads
folks used to call it strategic overkill"
- Bill1957

General Lee Butler, the last CO of SAC and first CO of Strategic Command has stated when he first was given access to the entire nuclear war plan: "Even having some sense of what it encompassed, I was shocked to see in fact it was defined by 12,500 targets in the former Warsaw Pact to be attacked by some 10,000 nuclear weapons, virtually simultaneously. . ."

When the Eisenhower "New Look" and "Massive Retaliation" became national policy all the US services became involved in a quest for their share of the Atomic pie.

SAC wanted more strategic bombs, and tactical bombs to rollback Warsaw Pact air defenses. The Navy wanted strategic and tactical bombs, the Army wanted nuclear rockets and artillery shells.

The USN even developed a nuclear shell for battleships. Nuclear was where the funding was and everyone wanted theirs.

Strategic planners were delighted. The more bombs they had to target the more targets they found to bomb.

When Eisenhower detailed his science advisor George Kistiakowsky to Omaha to find out exactly what the war plan was General Power essentially refused to reveal the war plan to the White House. Kistiakowsky eventually persuaded Power to supply the "broader picture." In his report to Eisenhower Kistiakowsky "emphasized the fantastic overkill that was being proposed." Kistiakowsky gave an example of one city "very much the size of Hiroshima was scheduled to get three or four 1-megaton bombs. Now if you picture Hiroshima after fifteen kilotons, you appreciate that it was just an insane overkill."*

How insane was the strategic targeting mentality of the times?

I have a memo addressed to Lewis Strauss, head of the Atomic Energy Commission, dated February 1957 which asks "The question of whether or not to develop 60 MT weapons is now current." The author explains the methods of the strategic planner in determining needs and how in fact the targeter pretty much could reach any conclusion he desired. He then adds "Requirements so generated are limited only by conscience, financial resources, or production capacity. Since the first is flexible and the second has imposed no restraint as yet, only production capacity has so far limited weapons requirements."

The author of the memo also tells how "A current DoD study questioned this procedure (targeting requirements), pointed out that "bonus" effects" (overlap of blast, thermal effects and radiation) effects result in tremendous over-kill, and concluded that analysis by (target) systems rather than by individual targets, using the same procedures and calculations, would show that kilotons rather than megatons are more than sufficient to achieve desired destruction. This study was rigorously suppressed and all copies destroyed." (declassified by Authority MC-83-2594, 6/15/83).

The 60 MT bomb was not authorized. The largest US bomb ever built was the 23 MT Mk 41, which saw limited use in SIOP-62 but was deleted in subsequent plans. For most of the period from the 1960s through the late 20th century the B53/W53 was the largest weapon in stockpile with a yield of 9 MT.

The answer to why "overkill" is that because we could, we did.

The Soviets eventually reached and slightly exceeded our insane numbers of weapons.

Starting with President Nixon attempts were made to first limit, then reduce the numbers of weapons in both nations arsenals. The current levels are still far in excess of those necessary for deterrence; but at least they are not absolutely certain to render the world unlivable if the worst happens.

*Miller, Admiral Gerald E., "Stockpile the Story behind 10,000 Strategic Nuclear Weapons," Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Maryland, 2010, pgs 19-20.

on Nov 7, 2016

In prior posts I have tried to show how the determination of necessary minimum deterrent force necessary might be arrived at.

That minimum deterrent had to be predicated upon a totally successful “Bold from the Blue” attack upon us. Which is to say an unprovoked and unanticipated Russian strike which achieved total success. An event extremely unlikely for very many reasons, An assumption necessary to answer the question of whether or not our nuclear forces were sufficient to effectively deter Russia.

As a successful Bolt from the Blue attack would require the launch of all Russian ICBMs and all of it’s SLBMs and cruise missile bomber few counterforce targets would remain and our SLBM assets could account for them as well as the annihilation of all significant counter value targets.

There are other possibilities.

We may assume OPLAN8010-16 includes a preemptive option where the USA would launch a totally prepared first strike at Russia with a primary goal limiting damage to the US. Such an endeavor would see maximum alert of bombers and submarines with our full potential for nuclear strike generated and positioned before launch. Such preparations could hardly be unnoticed. And most importantly, it would fail for the same reason a first strike on the US would fail.

During the 1960s and early 70s both the US and USSR attempted to achieve the ability to annihilate each other’s counter force assets without having to bear the consequences of a devastating retaliation. This produced insane numbers of weapons on each side.

The quest was mutually futile but we may assume that such a quixotic goal remains within the realm of planning.

A more likely situation would have a period of tension which would see a heightened alert where more aircraft would be on alert. More FBMS at sea. Events might worsen to where bombers were dispersed with a maximum number on alert and every possible submarine at sea. A status which could not be sustained for very long.

In those cases the probability of Survival and Launch of various assets would be greatly enhanced. A situation which would be matched by our opponent. Situation resulting: More damage on both sides and both utterly destroyed.

There is also the question of Launch on Warning. At a time of relaxed tensions it would not be unlikely that the decision to launch on warning would not be taken lightly given the very many times in the last 60 years when erroneous indications were received by both sides. During times of high tension any significant warning might result in a launch by one side or another. Such came quite close to happening in the Fall of 1983.

In making the case that the United States of America had sufficient assets to ride out a Bolt from the Blue and devastate Russia I made a case for prudence rather than panic in addressing upgrades to our strategic forces.

1. Our current forces are more than sufficient for deterence.
2. At some point the question of whether to reinstitute production of Minuteman bodies, develop a new missile, or abandon progressively the land based ICBM, will have to addressed.
3. The mid- to long term credibility of our bombers, including the B-2 and B-21 will require the Long Range Stand Off missile.
4. The timely availability at a reasonable cost and in sufficient numbers (I.e. the situation promised by the USAF and NG) cannot be assumed thus the LRSO is much more important than the B-21.
5. The credible deterrent of the USA is it’s SLBMs and their credibility is dependent upon their launch platform. Thus the most essential strategic assets is the Fleet Ballistic Missile Submarines and their methodical replacement is the most critical strategic upgrade necessary.

on Nov 14, 2016

How do you know that a North Korean device is not currently sitting in a basement in New York or Washington cities?
Discussing nuclear war with the Russians as a real potential does not go very far. One sub's worth, or one B-52's worth, or a couple of dozen Minutemen's worth of warheads should be enough to give any sane leader pause, and if not.......

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