When the Cold War ended, the US lost focus on its strategic nuclear mission. The national security establishment never seriously questioned the value of the nuclear deterrent, but after 1991, what was once the crown jewel of the US defense establishment was neglected. Conventional threats and wars in the Middle East and South Asia dominated the Pentagon’s attention, planning, and funding.
The airmen and sailors responsible for America’s nuclear triad of intercontinental ballistic missiles, nuclear-capable bombers, and boomer submarines persevered in their missions as attention and resources went elsewhere.
Long-developing problems were vividly brought to light when the Air Force accidentally flew nuclear weapons from North Dakota to Louisiana aboard a B-52 in 2007. USAF and the Defense Department instituted numerous organizational and institutional changes to refocus on the nuclear mission. Key moves included the 2009 creation of Air Force Global Strike Command, which unified USAF’s two-thirds of the triad under a single major command, and the creation of a two-star “A10” assistant chief of staff position with a nuclear focus.
More needed to be done, however, as demonstrated by a cheating scandal among ICBM officers in 2013. USAF recently took additional steps to ensure the nuclear mission receives support commensurate with its importance. Last year the AFGSC commander position was elevated to a four-star billet, with Gen. Robin Rand being the first full general to lead Global Strike Command. The Air Staff A10 was similarly upgraded to a full three-star deputy chief of staff position, held by Lt. Gen. Jack Weinstein. As Weinstein said in an interview, these changes mean USAF’s nuclear heads are now on par with other top Air Force leadership and are “no longer the junior people in the room.”
Changes are also from the bottom-up. Wing-level airmen say they see increased manning, new investment, and a clear “nuclear first” attitude throughout the Air Force. For example, USAF’s nuclear-capable B-2 and B-52 bomber crews report that nuclear missions come first. Major quality of life and career-path improvements are being put in place in the ICBM fields, making missile duty a more attractive specialty for young airmen.
Why should we care so much about a category of weapons that haven’t been used in 71 years, and that hopefully will never be used again? Because a safe and effective deterrent keeps the peace. During the first half of the 20th century, approximately 30 million people died because of World War I. Just two decades later, World War II was an even larger and deadlier conflagration, claiming perhaps 60 million lives.
Given humankind’s propensity for violence, it was natural to fear what would come next—especially since the nuclear weapons that brought an end to WWII in the Pacific were the most destructive weapons ever conceived. But something interesting happened. The nature of warfare unexpectedly shifted, as proxy wars and insurgencies largely replaced the force-on-force combat of the past. Nuclear weapons are so awe-inspiring, so unlike any other tool of warfare, they fundamentally change the way nations view survival.
For deterrence to be effective, it requires a credible capability, the will to use it, and an enemy’s awareness of those elements. As Henry A. Kissinger noted in 1961, “Deterrence is a product of those factors and not a sum. If any one of them is zero, deterrence fails.”
All is therefore not well with the US deterrent. While much has been done on the organizational and personnel fronts, USAF’s nuclear systems are geriatric and quickly sliding toward obsolescence. Most were purchased or last comprehensively modernized in the 1970s or 1980s. “We always say the Minuteman [III ICBM] was built in the 1970s, as if that made it acceptable,” said Maj. Gen. Michael E. Fortney, AFGSC vice commander, in a recent interview.
Today, the Air Force needs a new Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) to replace the Minuteman III and 1960s ICBM infrastructure, for the stability the dispersed system offers. USAF needs the stealthy B-21 bomber to access targets anywhere on Earth and recapitalize an ancient bomber force. It needs a Long-Range Standoff (LRSO) cruise missile to extend the range of its bombers, overcome advanced defenses, and replace outdated AGM-86B Air Launched Cruise Missiles. It needs a modernized B61-12 warhead so the US can have reliable nuclear gravity bombs in the future.
This begins to look like a laundry list, but it reflects the fact that nuclear modernization largely halted 30 years ago. Each of the aforementioned new weapons or systems will play a key role in the overlapping, resilient nuclear capability that keeps the US arsenal a viable deterrent. Russia and China are modernizing their nuclear arsenals, and improved anti-access, area-denial capabilities are making it increasingly difficult for older US systems to deny enemies sanctuary.
Deterrence has worked for decades with a triad of complementary nuclear systems. Would the deterrent work without them? We don’t know, and it would be foolhardy to find out.
Nuclear modernization bills will compete for dollars with numerous other high-profile modernization efforts over the next decade, and there will undoubtedly be calls to cancel the strategic programs because they are supposedly unnecessary, unaffordable, or threatening world peace.
USAF’s nuclear modernization plans must remain on track. If there is one thing Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea understand, it is that a credible US arsenal can destroy their nations and their regimes. Deterrence may be a harsh calculation, but it has compelled nations large and small to tread carefully for seven decades and counting.