In the case of the U.S. strategic nuclear deterrent, it would be better suited with land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles buried in silos in North America.
This might seem an odd choice. Why choose such destabilizing weapons? After all, ICBM’s are ill-suited for very much besides killing millions of people.
They only have an offensive role; they cannot be meaningfully defended; they cannot be recalled once launched; their existence cannot be hidden; their flight times are terrifyingly short. Why not start with something with a little more flexibility?
History and the state of technology in the 1950’s did in fact lead to a different conclusion at the time. Before the invention of long-range missiles, the United States and the Soviet Union created huge bomber forces over six decades ago.
All of the vices of missiles are reflected – supposedly – in the virtues of bombers: they’re slow, they can be recalled, they have human beings in them who can make real-time decisions, and they can be used for a broad array of missions. They are a prefect nuclear Swiss Army knife, suited for all kinds of missions.
That’s exactly what makes them dangerous, however. They’re tempting to policymakers who might want to use nuclear weapons while remaining in denial about the immense consequences of using nuclear weapons.
If the goal is purely to deter the use of nuclear weapons against us, ICBM’s (and their submarine launched little brothers, SLBM’s) are adequate to the job.
If the goal is to give the President all kinds of options for nuclear use – which I would seek to avoid – then by all means, buy more bombers. If the mission is purely deterrence, however, we have to rethink the accumulated decisions of a different time.
The notion of going toe-to-toe with the Russians in nuclear combat made at least some sense in the 1950’s. During the Cold War, we expected to fight the Soviet Union in a protracted nuclear war with far smaller nuclear weapons than we have now.
The whole thing was supposed to look like World War II, only bigger: conventional war in Europe, naval engagements on the seas in and around Eurasia, fighter jocks once again blasting each other out of the German skies.
In the midst of that war, bombers would not only have discrete missions against enemy military targets and infrastructure, they could be used for signaling, warnings, and “intra-war” deterrence (as in, “my bombers are in the air, and you now have eight hours to back off”).
ICBM’s appeared at the end of the 1950’s and were institutionalized as the backbone of the American strategic deterrent by 1970.
Once missile technology appeared, the only real question about missiles was whether to hide them underwater, or to bury some in holes while attaching others to aircraft.
The Air Force won this bitter inter-service dispute, and Admiral Arleigh Burke and the Navy lost in their bid for a “minimum deterrent” of a few hundred missiles at sea.
But the conditions that created the nuclear force of 1964 are not the conditions of 2014.
If we’re serious about establishing nuclear weapons solely as a deterrent against nuclear attack on the U.S. or its closest allies, then we have to structure our forces so they can do nothing else but retaliate for such an attack and destroy the entire world?
America is the preeminent conventional power and will remain so for decades to come. There is nothing that nuclear weapons can do for us, short of deterring nuclear use by others, which we cannot achieve with conventional arms.
America can defend itself with a small number of strategic nuclear arms, perhaps as low as two or three hundred. Scholars at the Air War College have pegged a number close to 300, which might even be high, but since we’re already at 1550 pieces by treaty with Russia, there’s room to cut.
Start with a base of 300 bombs, and keep a third of those on single-warhead missiles in North America. (ICBM’s with one warhead would be useless as first-strike weapons and thus their mission of retaliation would be clearer.)
Assume the enemy surprises us – these days, pretty much a ridiculous assumption, but always plan for the worst – and somehow manages to destroy two-thirds of them before we even know what’s happening.
That leaves 25 land-based missiles landing on enemy cities and infrastructure, killing millions, inflicting almost unrecoverable damage, and raising the cost of war beyond any benefit gained by this notional attack.
If four U.S. nuclear submarines with 16 to 20 missiles (and one to three warheads on each missile) are on patrol at any given moment, that means that the 100 warheads of the land-based force will always be backed up by anywhere from 64 to 240 warheads.
Even at the lowest number, with three out of four lost to enemy action, one submarine would still be left to level the enemy’s capital and a dozen more cities. If that isn’t a deterrent, nothing is.
This reboot would streamline our nuclear forces, simplify our overly-complex nuclear strategies, and save billions of dollars.
Conventionally-armed bombers will always be crucial in picking up missions that require the heavy use of air-power. (Bombers aren’t going away.)
But nuclear bombers would be a “nice to have” not a “must-have,” and before arming a single bomber with a nuclear bomb, someone would have to make a case based on strategy rather than tradition.
Start from zero, and add enough survivable nuclear weapons to destroy the regime of any nation that attacks us with nuclear arms.
Put all the exotic toys away, focus on that one mission, and America will do not only a conservative thing, but a sensible thing, by saving money and confirming that our nuclear weapons actually have a real reason for existing besides the science-fiction scenarios of nuclear war-fighting.
This reboot would streamline our nuclear forces, simplify our overly-complex nuclear strategies, and save billions of dollars. Conventionally-armed bombers will always be crucial in picking up missions that require the heavy use of air-power.
National Interest / ABC Flash Point News 2021.