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Brother, Can You Spare a Missile?

Trying to keep the unneeded, and unnecessarily dangerous, nuclear triad alive

The B-52 bomber carries a wide variety of weapons. The Air Force is now developing a new long-range nuclear missile for the 60-year old aircraft. (Photo: U.S. Air Force / Tech. Sgt. Robert J. Horstman)

When you get to a certain age, you may need help in getting around. You know: canes, walkers, and wheelchairs. Same thing’s true with nuclear bombers. To face ever-improving air defenses over countries they might have to attack, they’re turning into lobbers, not bombers. They can fly close to their targets, but stay outside the range of enemy air defenses. That way, the thinking goes, they can “safely” lob atomic weapons, designed to kill millions, with minimal risk to the weapon or the people deploying it.

Bizarre world, this nuclear-war biz.

Just brand it “deterrence,” the liturgy goes, and it’s not only logical, but required. To argue otherwise is strategic sacrilege, because reducing deterrence makes war more likely, the argument goes.

The AGM-86B cruise missile is the only nuclear weapon the B-52 carries today.
(Photo: U.S. Air Force / Staff Sgt. Roidan Carlson)

We get around just fine with two legs, but the Pentagon has long argued that three are necessary to ensure the security and utility of the nation’s long-range nuclear weapons. That’s why we have a “triad” to send them toward the enemy. Yet three, when it comes to deterrence, is overkill, so to speak. Even a pared-down dyad would be redundant. But don’t count on that happening any time soon, given that we have leaders armed with rubber stamps rather than foresight.

We have a triad because that was how the enterprise grew during the Cold War. Now it’s a fait accompli, locked in amber. To argue against the triad risks excommunication from the nuclear priesthood. Before becoming President Donald Trump’s defense secretary in 2017, retired Marine general James Mattis wondered in 2015 if it made sense “to reduce the triad to a dyad.” But once tapped to run the Defense Department, he embraced the triad-and-true, saying keeping all three legs “is the right way to go.”

Now the Air Force is rushing development of its highly classified Long Range Standoff missile, a $20 billion effort to keep the still surprisingly spry B-52 atomically relevant. Some think the move is designed to get the program up and running before a non-President Trump has a chance to shoot it down.

The Air Force issued a surprise announcement April 17 saying it picked a contractor, Raytheon, to develop the missile nearly two years earlier than expected. Defense Secretary Mark Esper worked as Raytheon’s top lobbyist from 2010 to 2017, earning $1.5 million in his final year. In 2017 he went to work at the Pentagon as Army secretary. At his confirmation hearing last year for the top Pentagon post, he declined to continue to recuse himself from Defense Department decisions regarding Raytheon beyond the initial required two year period. While there’s no suggestion he played any role in the missile decision, a surprise benefitting his former employer raises questions about conflicts of interest. That said, the shrinking defense industry increasingly perfumes such actions.

The originally planned 54-month competition between Raytheon and Lockheed ended after 32 months in what Defense News called a “surprise decision.” It’s not every day the development timetable for a new weapon shrinks by 40 percent. The Air Force says it needs the new missile to replace the B-52’s AGM-86B cruise missile, which first flew 38 years ago in 1982. (But that’s nothing: The 76 B-52s still flying are nearly 60 years old, making them eligible for AARP membership and the resulting 5% discount on their Consumer Cellar mobile phones.) The Long Range Standoff missile is slated to start replacing the AGM-86B on the B-52 in about a decade.

The Air Force plans to buy about 1,000 missiles, with roughly half of them nuclear-armed. The missile will use a modified W80-1 warhead, now atop the AGM-86B, to be renamed the W80-4. The Long Range Standoff missile is expected to match the 1,500-mile-plus range of the older missile. It is supposed to do a better job at reaching targets because of its radar-eluding stealthiness, and to find them even if GPS signals are jammed.

But why are we buying a brand new missile for an ancient airplane? Let’s back up a bit.

Parishioners, please turn to the triad’s Old Testament. There you’ll see that a pair of U.S. Army Air Forces B-29 bombers destroyed much of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. The Air Force, created in 1947, added the ground-based Atlas intercontinental ballistic missile to its arsenal in 1959. In 1960, the Navy’s first sub-launched ballistic missiles were launched.

The U.S. military—Voilà—had stumbled upon what only later would be called the nuclear triad. “The language of the ‘triad’ comes well after the various weapon systems have been deployed,” atomic-weapons historian Alex Wellerstein wrote in 2016 on his Nuclear Secrecy blog. “It is not the ‘logic’ of why they made the weapons systems in the first place, but a retrospective understanding of their strategic roles.” (Emphasis in original)

And, let’s face it, the retro-branding of bombers, intercontinental ballistic missiles, and sub-launched missiles as a triad was little more than, you might say, a Department of Defensive PR move. “The invocation of the ‘triad’ as a unitary strategic concept seems to have come about when people started to wonder whether we actually needed three major delivery systems for strategic weapons,” Wellerstein noted. “The triad technologies each require heavy investments in bases, in personnel, in jobs. They aren’t weapons so much as they are organizations that maintain weapons. Which is probably why you have to defend them: they are expensive.” (Emphasis in original)

Last year, the Congressional Budget Office estimated the triad and its supporting elements, including the labs that build them and the communications that launch them, will cost the U.S. $479 billion between 2019 and 2028. An additional $15 billion is slated to pay for “tactical” nuclear weapons, which, due to the peculiar rituals of doomsday dogma, are not deemed to be strategic weapons.

There’s a key unspoken agreement among the nuclear-triad clergy that boils down to this: If you don’t criticize my leg of the nuclear triad, I won’t come after yours.

There’s a key unspoken agreement among the nuclear-triad clergy that boils down to this: “If you don’t criticize my leg of the nuclear triad, I won’t come after yours.” That unholy alliance is superglued tightly together in a congressional vise, based on where each leg is produced and deployed. New England lawmakers are heavily represented in the Congressional Submarine Caucus. Californians love the bomber leg, and High Plains lawmakers strongly support the intercontinental ballistic missile bases in their region. Eureka! You now have the perfect recipe for the atomic-weapons autopilot that has persisted, not only during the Cold War, but for the 30 years since it ended.

Since the first B-52 flew in 1954, the Pentagon has spent $65 billion buying 100 B-1s and 20 B-2s for the bomber “leg” of the nuclear triad. Now a brand new bomber, the B-21, is rolling down the runway and slated to become operational in the mid-2020s. At an estimated cost of $97 billion, that works out to about $1 billion per plane.

Curious taxpayers might wonder why we need the Long Range Standoff missile for the Eisenhower-era B-52s if we have B-1s and B-2s still flying, and B-21s are in the pipeline. Well, that gets kind of embarrassing.

You see, the B-1 Lancer lost its nuclear mission in 1994, a victim of the collapse of the Soviet Union and its own poor reliability (only 46% were able to perform a single mission at any one time last year). And the B-2 Spirit has had trouble maintaining its touchy and costly radar-eluding coat (readiness rate last year: 60%). So the Air Force is planning on retiring both planes in the 2030s so it can pump billions into keeping the much older B-52s flying (readiness rate last year: 66%). And to buy that new bomber, of course. That’s going to leave the Air Force with a two-bomber force: Very old B-52 Stratofortresses and very new B-21 Raiders.

Actually, calling the B-52 a bomber is blasphemy. The B-52 hasn’t been carrying dumb, old nuclear bombs—guided to their targets by gravity’s grace—since 2010. “The reason for the change appears to be that the B-52 is no longer considered survivable enough to slip through modern air-defenses and drop nuclear gravity bombs on enemy territory,” Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists said in 2017 (the Air Force confirmed his hunch in January). That leaves the AGM-86B cruise missile as the only nuclear weapon assigned to the BUFF (Big Ugly Fat Fellow, in front of the children).

The Air Force destroyed its nuclear-tipped AGM-129 Advanced Cruise Missiles a decade ago using heavy-duty destruction equipment from Japan.
(Photo: U.S. Air Force / Alex Lloyd)

It’s not that the Pentagon didn’t try to do better, mind you. Starting in 1990, B-52s were outfitted with the AGM-129 Advanced Cruise Missile, a $6 billion stealthy nuclear punch. But the Air Force scrapped it in 2012 because of reliability issues (starting to notice a pattern?).

As the Air Force plunges ahead with the LRSO, its third nuclear-tipped cruise missile for the B-52, it’s important to recall the flawed logic it used to justify building that Advanced Cruise Missile a generation ago. It was needed, advocates said, because Soviet air defenses were becoming so potent they could shoot down lumbering jets like the B-52, as well as the lumbering AGM-86B cruise missiles it fired. Plus, the U.S. needed the new missile’s greater range and accuracy.

But the Government Accountability Office blew the Air Force’s assertion out of the sky. The Soviet air defense threats “had been overestimated,” the agency found in 1993. Moscow’s “current air defenses are more likely to degrade than improve,” given the country’s collapse. The Air Force’s “belief” that the “ACM [Advanced Cruise Missile] is needed to overcome low ALCM [AGM-86B Air-Launched Cruise Missile] survivability” was discounted by tests that “did not demonstrate low ALCM survivability.” The range of the old missile “was better than what had been reported”—the government routinely classifies such information, so you can guess who did the misreporting—and meant the new missile’s range was only “slightly greater.” Finally, the GAO concluded, “the improvement in accuracy offered by the ACM appears to have little real operational significance.”

Of course, sloppy salesmanship isn’t the only reason to question the warfighting wisdom of the new cruise missile. The Air Force plan to outfit it with both nuclear and conventional warheads is dicey. “The capability of a delivery platform to carry both conventional and nuclear forces may create warhead ambiguity for adversaries leading to unintended nuclear war,” a 2018 report by Sandia National Laboratory noted.

Workers at the Sandia National Laboratory in New Mexico conducting a test on the new W80-4 nuclear warhead that will be on the business end of the LRSO cruise missile.
(Photo: Sandia National Lab / Randy Wong)

If there’s anything worse than an accidental nuclear war triggered by “warhead ambiguity,” it’s a deliberate nuclear war launched on purpose. But that’s pretty much the assignment for this new missile in the Air Force’s playbook. “Service and industry officials have said LRSO will have a mission to destroy densely overlapped air defense systems, clearing a path for stealth bombers to penetrate enemy airspace,” Air Force Magazine reported in 2018.

The thermonuclear theocracy insists such war-planning is required to bolster deterrence. But what this country truly needs is fewer atomic acolytes and more atomic atheists. Or even more critically, converts like former Defense Secretary William Perry. Originally a triad true-believer, he was a key champion of the AGM-86B when he served as the Pentagon’s top weapons civilian during the Carter administration. But now that it’s nearing the end of its life, he doesn’t think the U.S. military should replace it. “I see it as imperative … to stop this damn nuclear race before it’s underway again,” Perry argued in 2015. “Not just for the cost of it. It’s the danger it puts all of us in.”

Unfortunately, given the Air Force’s decision last month, along with similar efforts by Russia and China, the race seems to have already begun anew. It will take true leaders, with a keen understanding that the future doesn’t belong to those with the most missiles, to alter that course.