A Full-Bodied Triad

Jan. 31, 2009

Finally, USAF is making real progress on its ICBM and bomber programs, but strategic modernization could still fall victim to fiscal cannibalism.

The US strategic modernization program that President Reagan promulgated in October 1981 is falling into place. In limbo for several years, new strategic weapons are now making appearances on test ranges or in aerospace plants. Others, to follow, are being designed or developed. Altogether they hold high promise for a full-bodied triad of US strategic forces well into the twenty-first century.

Much credit goes to the President’s Commission on Strategic Forces, a bipartisan panel of defense experts headed by Lt. Gen. Brent Scowcroft, USAF (Ret.), who served as National Security Advisor to former President Ford. In its report of last April, the so-called Scowcroft Commission buttressed and refined the rationale for the President’s program and gave it enough impetus to get its most controversial element, USAF’s Peace-keeper ICBM, through Congress.

Now Peacekeeper has passed initial flight tests and is headed for production. USAF’s B-1B bomber, also a big beneficiary of Scowcroft Commission endorsement, is firmly on track. Second-generation air-launched cruise missiles (ALCMs) are starting to equip the B-52 bomber force. The Navy’s Trident I submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) and submarine-launched cruise missile (SLCM) forces are expanding. Strategic command control and communications (C3) and strategic defense programs are receiving extraordinary attention for the first time in many years.

All fit the President’s bill, with more in the offing. Development of USAF’s “Stealth” advanced technology bomber (ATB) is coming along well. The small intercontinental ballistic missile (SICBM), which was roundly endorsed by the Scowcroft Commission, has caught on with SUAF and is taking form on paper. So is the advanced cruise missile (ACM). And the Navy’s Trident 11 (D-5) submarine-launched ballistic missile, of longer range and greater accuracy than the Trident 1 (C-4) missile, should be ready for sea duty in just a few more years.

So far, so good. “Our strategic modernization program is right where we want it to be.” Claims Richard D. DeLauer, Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering. USAF officials, too seem satisfied at his juncture.

“I am tremendously encouraged by the successes of the strategic modernization program we have under way,” declares Col. E.M. Collier, Special Assistant for Strategic Programs to USAF’s Deputy Chief of Staff for Research, Development and Acquisition.

Funding Pitfalls

It may be difficult however, to sustain the presently brisk momentum of strategic modernization in all its forms. This is why USAF is taking care not to let up or to seem smug. “Strategic modernization is still our number-one priority.” Affirms Lt. Gen. Robert D. Russ, USAF’s Deputy Chief of Staff for Research, Development and Acquisition.

Funding may be a near-term pitfall. When President Reagan announced his program nearly two and a half years ago, he called it one “that the nation can afford.” Before too long, however, the nation’s will, not its wherewithal, may be called into question.

Paying for the program will require only fourteen percent of the US defense budgets that the Administration is projecting over the next five years, Secretary DeLauer told Air Force Magazine. But those budgets, and their projected spending on strategic modernization, may run afoul of a major slowdown in the rate of growth of defense spending. Such a slowdown began taking shape last year on Capitol Hill and may become more pronounced as part of a growing effort to cut the national debt without raising taxes out of bounds.

There are also the related dangers of fiscal cannibalism and of incoherence among the expanding elements of the strategic modernization program. For example, the development and testing of laser and other exotic technologies befitting the Administration’s Strategic Defense Initiatives (SDI) program are expecting to cost a bundle — at least $18 billion — over the next five years.

Pentagon champions of deterring nuclear attack by virtue of a strong triad of offensive forces are wary of SDI. It could drain not only funds but also the present sense of urgency from programs to modernize offensive strategic forces.

The SDI program can be accommodated in the overall context of strategic modernization so long as its technologies are nurtured at a prudent pace and not rushed prematurely into high-cost production programs, USAF officials believe. But many worry about its upshot.

“If I have an SKI system oriented to space, my Achilles’ heel could become my offensive capability in the atmosphere,” declares on USAF general. “The big question is: How would we manage the transition from reliance on offense to reliance on defense This is where arms control could come into the picture. If there are fewer offensive weapons, the defense gets easier.”

What it comes down to is that SDI and arms control are the wild cards in the strategic modernization game. Pending their coming into play, however, USAF is intent on leading from strength with the strategic-offense programs it has in hand.

Peacekeeper on Target

The Peacekeeper program now fits that category. Starting last June 17, Peacekeeper flight test, during which the missiles are launched from Vandenberg AFB, Calif., and travel more than 4,000 miles to the Kwajalein Missile Test Range in the Pacific, have been reassuring and more. “Accuracy has been phenomenal, just as we expected,” says one officer in the Peacekeeper program.

Altogether, twenty such tests are scheduled through the end of 1987 — the first nine from above-ground test stands, the remainder form silos replicating those in which the ICBMs will be emplaced at F. E. Warren AFB, Wyo. Construction of fifteen base-support buildings will begin at Warren this spring. Peacekeepers will start going into silos there in 1986, and the first ten missiles will be operational by the end of that year. The full complement of 100 Peacekeepers is expected to be operational by the end of 1989.

There are now 200 Minuteman III ICBMs on alert around Warren, with silos in adjoining corners of Wyoming, Colorado, and Nebraska. Modifications of half of those silos for the Peacekeepers will be relatively minor. The silos will not be hardened above present levels. But the Peacekeepers will be given added protection in the form of new shock isolation systems, and by means of the canisters in which they are designed to repose.

Peacekeeper is a four-stage missile configured to deliver ten reentry vehicles (RVs) to disparate targets at ranges of more than 5,000 — probably closer to 6,000 — miles. Its first three stages use solid propellants. Its fourth stage — the post-boost vehicle embodying up to ten RVs — gets it power from a liquid —propellant, axial-thrust engine. Eight small engines provide attitude control. The post-boost vehicle also contains the missile’s guidance and control system and a deployment module.

The guidance system is the prizewinner. Peacekeeper’s classified circular error probable (CEP) will be significantly tighter than the Minuteman III CEP, which is believed to be about 700 feet. Such accuracy, together with the Mk 21 RVs’ payload, will make Peacekeeper the nonpareil hard-target destroyer in the US strategic arsenal.

The Beryllium Ball

At the heart of Peacekeeper’s guidance and navigation system is the Advanced Inertial Reference Sphere (AIRS) with its highly advanced Inertial Measurement Unit (IMU). A “beryllium ball” weighing 450 pounds, the AIRS assemblage was designed for exquisite accuracy and, in keeping with that, great resistance to stress and temperature changes.

Unlike Minuteman III’s gimbal-mounted, metal-touching-metal gyroscopes and accelerometers, those of Peacekeeper’s AIRS are snugly suspended in a highly viscous fluorocarbon liquid, which gives them free play but shields them against environmental fluctuations and keeps them from being bumped around. AIRS’s beryllium housing is also virtually impervious to the drastic changes of temperature that a ballistic missile undergoes in flight.

The demonstrated success of the AIRS system is the big reason why USAF is looking with favor on a lighter, smaller variant of it for the embryonic SICBM. Other kinds of guidance are also being considered, such as the stellar-updating system characteristic of the Navy’s D-5 SLBM now in engineering development.

Navy sources claim that the D-5 missile’s star-seeking guidance system, which is designed also to take advantage of signals fro Navstar Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites, will make the D-5 a hard-target killer. Until the D-5 came along, benefiting from advances in digital electronics, such capability was beyond SLBMs. Their inertial guidance and navigation systems could not, and cannot now, compensate for the imprecision inherent in determining their launching submarines’ positions relative to the movement of the earth.

The D-5 will go a long way toward surmounting that problem, but maybe not wholly. As the Scowcroft Commission reported: “The D-5 missile’s greater accuracy will…enable it to put some portion of Soviet hard targets at risk, a task for which the current Trident I [C-4] missile is not sufficiently accurate.”

Even so, USAF is not wild about adopting D-5 guidance for land-based ballistic missiles. The Air Force makes much of the fact that Peacekeeper’s guidance function is carried out by a totally self-contained inertial guidance and navigation system and that the missile is wholly independent of external navigational references or commands. Dependence on such references introduces an element of insecurity. For example, GPS satellites may not survive very long if the balloon goes up.

Trimming the AIRS system down to size for the SICBM will be a big challenge. It will have to lose about 150 pounds with no sacrifice of capability. The trick in the SICBM program will be to build a missile capable of delivering about 1,100 pounds of payload — the guidance system and an RV of about 430 kilotons — with the accuracy of Peacekeeper, and to base the SICBMs out of harm’s way.

Congress snapped up the Scowcroft Commission’s strong recommendation for USAF reversion to single-warhead ICBMs on grounds that they would be easily verifiable weapons and thus conducive to future strategic arms control. As the commission realized early on, the arms-stabilization allure of SICBM was the leverage that the Administration needed to get Peacekeeper through Congress.

But USAF paid a price. In its Fiscal 1984 military authorization bill, Congress mandate that SICBM weigh no more than 33,000 pounds, that it be based in a mobile mode, and that its major subsystems be tested prior to Peacekeeper’s 1986 initial operational capability (IOC). Moreover, the first flight test of the small, single-warhead missile must take place before the fortieth Peacekeeper is deployed, as scheduled, in 1988 — or else Peacekeeper deployment will end right there.

USAF is hoping for congressional amelioration of such strictures in coming years. Right now, however, says one USAF official, “We are tried to the congressional language and the bounds it puts on our engineering challenges.

Small Missile Advisory Group

To address those challenges, Gen. Robert t. Marsh. Commander of Air Force Systems Command (AFSC), formed the Small Missile Advisory Group under Gen. B. A. Schriever, USAF (Ret.), to devise a development and acquisition strategy for SICBM. The group’s report of last June “provides the blueprint we need to achieve the congressionally mandated milestones,” General Marsh declares.

Some of its highlights:

¡ A hard, mobile launcher for SICBM on DOD land areas, but also an option for fixed, hard-silo deployment as a dual basing mode.

¡ The weight-limitation mandate is “challenging but reasonably supported by technology projections.”

¡ The SIBM program should have two parts: one, a baseline approach for making all possible use of systems developed for Peacekeeper, such as AIRS and the Mk 21 RV; the other, parallel development of subsequent technologies (perhaps ring-laser or optical gyroscopes, for example) for evolutionary improvements and cost reductions.

¡ USAF should shoot for a SICBM IOC in 1992.

SICBM basing is an imponderable. Given latter-day progress in the technologies of superhard missile silos and in fashioning transporter/launcher vehicles to withstand nuclear detonation, either course now seems possible. The questions will be: Which one Or better both

Last October 29, the Defense Nuclear Agency (DNA) conducted a test called “Direct Course Blast” at White Sands Missile Range, N M Simulating a one-kiloton nuclear detonation, 600 tons of high explosives were touched off atop a 166-foot tower. Positioned 475 feet to 1,030 feet from the tower were scale models of generic transporter/launcher vehicles built independently by DNA, the air Force Weapons Laboratory at Kirtland AFG, N. M., and four aerospace contractors — Boeing, McDonnell Douglas, General Dynamics, and Bell Aerospace. Overpressures on those vehicles, which were commonly characterized by curvilinear, ground-hugging shapes, ranged from ten to fifty pounds per square inch (psi).

The results were encouraging. They fostered optimism that USAF will be able to meet its design goals for SICBM transporter/launchers capable of withstanding twenty-five to thirty psi.

Even though Congress last year cut in half USAF’s budget for silo-superhardening studies, such studies have already shown, as one congressional report put it, that “superhardening of ICBM silos to very high overpressures is feasible.” Earlier, the Scowcroft Commission had reported “the capability to harden such targets as ICBM silos far in excess of what was thought possible only a short time ago.”

The implications of this for Peacekeeper deployment may be at least as profound as they are for the follow-on small missiles.

Meanwhile, SICBM is in solid with SAC. “I support it wholeheartedly,” asserts Gen. Bennie L. Davis, SAC’s Commander in Chief. “It will compound Soviet targeting problems, and hence, hopefully, lead to a way to get at arms control in terms that the Soviets understand.”

The Air-Breathing Leg

In its two-bomber program, USAF aspires to the same well-ordered progression of deployment that it foresees for Peacekeeper and SICBM. Once the B-1B goes into production in 1986, USAF will once again be in the reassuring situation of having a strategic bomber in the inventory, another in production, and a third (the ATB) in development. This has not been the case since the B-52 came into the force.

USAF officials are downright enthusiastic about the pace and execution of the B-1B preproduction program. “It gets high remarks,” declares General Marsh. “The B-1B flight test effort is moving faster than we planned, and the associate contractors — Rockwell, Boeing, AIL, and General Electric — are three months ahead of schedule. In fact, we anticipate an earlier-than-scheduled flight of the first production aircraft.”

That flight was scheduled originally to take place in March 1985, with the B-1B IOC set for August 1986 and full deployment of 100 operational bombers for June 1988. Now all such dates may be moved up.

The cost picture looks good too. Congressional approval of multiyear B-1B procurement translates into at least $700 million of savings over the three-year production run, with special emphasis on bargain prices in buying titanium in wholesale lots. Ordering all titanium ahead of time also greatly eases contractors’ concerns about long lead times for serial orders.

The B-1B will, in many ways, differ dramatically from the original B-1. For example, it will embody a new avionics system, forward-fuselage vanes of composite material, electronically controlled engines, a tail-warning radar, a movable weapons bay bulkhead, simplified over-wing fairings, and enhanced capacity for external weapons and fuel.

The B-1B will carry about 100,000 pounds more fuel than the B-1. Its four F101-GE-102 turbofan engines, each generating 30,000 pounds of thrust, will give it low-supersonic capability at cruise altitudes and high-subsonic capability for penetration at altitudes of 300 feet or less, hugging the nap of the earth courtesy of its terrain-following radar.

In forgoing high supersonic capability (the original B-1 was designed for high-flying Mach 2 performance), the B-1B’s variable geometry wings will sweep in shorter arcs toward the fuselage, and its engine inlets and exhaust nozzles will incorporate features for foiling radar and infrared seekers, respectively. The leading and trailing edges of its wings and tail surfaces will have radar-absorbent coatings.

Measures have also been taken to preclude radar returns from the metallic nooks and crannies inside the B-1B cockpit. Angular exterior surfaces characteristic of the B-1 have been smoothed and curved to deflect radar. Curtailing the sweep of the B-1B’s wings makes it easier to reduce the radar cross-section of its wing fairings, according to one source. For good measure, the B-1B’s updated defensive avionics are designed to jam the entire spectrum of Soviet radar frequencies now as well as in the foreseeable future.

Such innovations give USAF confidence that the B-1B will be capable of penetrating Soviet heartland defenses well into the 1990s. By then, if all goes as planned, the ATB will be operational. As billed, the ATB will have a head-on radar cross section close to zero, whereas the RCS of the B-1B, while a tenfold improvement over that of the B-52, is about one square meter.

ATB Development

ATB development remains highly classified. Procurement plans, too, are closely held, even though some officials say that USAF is looking toward an operational fleet of 132 ATBs. One source claims that the ATB program is “going very well,” having surmounted some initial scale-model problems, such as wing flutter on the deck, and now presents “no major technical risks.”

Moreover, advanced-development testing shows that the ATB’s RCS numbers are “extremely low — more than up to expectations,” says still another source. ATB skeptics are not so sure. “It will be awful hard to hide an airplane that big.” Says one.

Funding for the ATB program is expected to increase sharply in the near future as the bomber proceeds into engineering development. First flight is said to be scheduled for 1986, and the ATB IOC for the early 1990s.

Despite USAF’s oft-stated intent to fund the ATB program prudently but firmly through development, some ATB champions continue to fear that USAF will keep the program reined in until it is certain that total B-1B production is ensured. Some even suspect that USAF may eventually dump the ATB in favor of extending B-1B production into the 1990s.

Such apprehension motivated Congress, in its Fiscal 1984 military authorization report, to prohibit any diversion of ATB development funding to any other USAF program.

Defense Department and USAF officials dismiss that move as having been unwarranted. They look forward with increasing confidence to the sequential culmination of the two-bomber program, with the ATB taking over from the B-1B as SAC’s principal penetrators by the mid-1990s, and the B-1B then superseding the B-52 in the standoff cruise-missile role and as a conventional-mission weapons system.

By the time this comes to pass, air-launched cruise missiles will probably have become a much different, fancier breed. USAF’s advanced cruise missile (ACM) program has begun to generate a standoff strategic weapon for the 1990s and beyond. It will be extremely difficult to detect by radar. It may also have intercontinental range and supersonic speed, perhaps powered by a ramjet engine. In fact, ramjet propulsion is being considered in USAF’s new study of a successor to the short-range attack missile (SRAM) for penetrating bombers.

Propulsion is the pacemaker in the ACM design and development program. Thrust limitations of the F107 turbofan in existing ALCM variants prevent them from taking full advantage of their optimal flight envelope. They cannot fly as low or in as severe terrain as USAF would prefer because their thrust is too low. Thus, USAF, in concert with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), is setting out to devise an ACM engine of much greater thrust-to-weight ratio and fuel efficiency. Meanwhile, the F107 engine is being upgraded on both counts.

The C3 Umbrella

Modernization of strategic weapons may go for naught if command control and communications improvements do not deep pace. This is why President Reagan’s strategic modernization program put a premium on C3 upgrading.

When the Administration took office, there was grave doubt that the US strategic C3 system could survive nuclear attack. That doubt remains, but much is being done to dispel it for the future.

For example, some new, much-improved, hardened communications satellites, such as the third-generation Defense Satellite Communications System (DSCS#) satellites, are coming on line. Others, such as the MILSTAR satellites, are being developed. Highly versatile as to missions, MILSTAR satellites will feature virtually jamproof communications for strategic and tactical forces.

Other examples of improvements abound. New very-low-frequency (VLF) receivers are being installed on bombers. The scope and redundancy of airborne and ground communications centers and nodes are being expanded in the name of survivability and enhanced performance, with much accent on mobility. A network of Ground Wave Emergency Network (GWEN) terminals, to handle VHF communications, is taking shape. And USAF’s Air Force Satellite Communications (AFSATCOM) system is now in place aboard Fleet Satellite Communications (FLTSATCOM) satellites.

“We have made more progress over the last three years in C3 than we have in the last twenty-five years,” claims SAC’s CINC General Davis. “But we have not yet arrived.”

In view of anticipated fiscal constraints, C3 improvements, too, may compete with weapon systems for funding in the years ahead. “The Defense Department is adamant about our addressing C3, and we’ve placed a C3 umbrella on top of everything,” says one USAF officer. “We certainly need to improve our [strategic] connectivity, but there’s a cost, and it scares you.”