The Bunker: Atomic Acquisitions

The Bunker, delivered to our subscribers Wednesdays at 7 a.m., is a newsletter from the desk of National Security Analyst Mark Thompson. Sign up here to receive it first thing, or check back Wednesday afternoon for the online version.

This week in The Bunker: as the Air Force begins building its new ICBM, all three legs of the nuclear triad are facing headwinds in an increasingly dangerous world that nukes are ill-suited to handle; and more.


Pentagon builds an ICBM

Those of a certain age remember when newspapers were crammed with want ads — to seek employees, sell a car, or reconnect a lost pet with its owner. They’re basically lost to history now, but the Defense Department still churns out what it wants in daily posts to — the U.S. government’s version of the classifieds.

They tend to be mundane things like beans and boots, but on May 4, the Air Force posted a double-barreled blast for its new $96 billion Intercontinental Ballistic Missile, the LGM-35A Sentinel. “The Air Force is planning early acquisition efforts for a new Next Generation Reentry Vehicle for deployment on the Sentinel … weapon system,” one read. “Key advanced reentry vehicle (RV) attributes … may include enhancements in accuracy, lethality, survivability, etc.”

Of course, guiding a warhead to a target isn’t a piece of (yellow) cake. Many nations don’t want nuclear weapons exploding on their soil and will try to prevent that from happening. That’s why, along with the new RV, the Air Force wants to come up with ways, like decoy warheads, to thwart such efforts. “The Air Force is planning early acquisition efforts for Next Generation Countermeasures for deployment on the Sentinel…weapon system,” it echoed in a second solicitation. “Key advanced countermeasure attributes may include enhancements in accuracy, lethality, survivability, etc.” Funny how cost is never cited. Details, of course, are secret. Contractors interested in either project are meeting in Utah with the Air Force the week of May 8.

Despite calls to scrap the ICBM leg of the nuclear triad — the other two legs are long-range Air Force bombers and Navy missile-firing submarines — the national security state is plowing ahead with plans to spend up to $1.5 trillion to replace all three limbs. 


Woes on the A-acquisition front

The nuclear triad is a piece of atomic prestidigitation that was only justified after its creation following World War II. Ex post fission, in other words. Efforts to rebuild each leg, part of the $56.5 billion the government wants to spend on nuclear weapons in 2024, are limping along. POGO people Spurthi Kontham and Geoff Wilson detailed some of the downsides in The Bridge newsletter May 4.

That new ICBM program ($4.3 billion sought in 2024), slated to begin replacing the existing Minuteman III fleet in 2029, is facing delays. The Air Force is studying “all the possible ways that program could get in trouble,” Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said April 27. “It’s a very complicated, very large program, both of which add a lot of risk to the program.” Hardly reassuring. Noah C. Mayhew at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientistssays the new Northrop missile is “not only is outrageously expensive but also inherently destabilizing and unnecessary for deterrence.”

The Air Force is seeking $5.3 billion next year to continue development of Northrop’s B-21 bomber. It wants 100 or more for $89 billion (the service’s chief outside booster says the nation needs at least 225.) “It’s slipped from the original schedule — that we were using as a schedule to manage by — by a few months,” Kendall said in March.

Some question the need for such aircraft. “Heavy bombers have played a key role in defending American interests since the 1930s,” Tom Ordeman, Jr., wrote May 6 at Small Wars Journal. “However, current strategic and tactical conditions render them obsolete, and as a result, current plans to procure the B-21 Raider amount to little more than nostalgia, rather than strategic necessity.”

Unfortunately, Kendall — who runs the military service buying both weapons — has been barred from managing them because of his previous work for Northrop.

Finally, the Navy wants $6.1 billion in 2024 for its Columbia-class, missile-firing “boomer” submarines. The service plans to spend $132 billion for 12 of them. This is the most survivable leg of the triad, and the only one a sane nation needs. But the Air Force and its backers would bomb proponents of such a scheme back to the Stone Age.

Yet Columbia is struggling to stay on track, with the first boat 10% behind schedule, according to Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro. “The shipbuilders are facing delays because of challenges with design, materials, and quality,” the Government Accountability Office reports(PDF).

“Challenge” keeps popping up in discussions about rebuilding all three legs of the triad simultaneously. “Challenge” is the Pentagon’s leading indicator for “late delivery and over budget.” That means higher costs or fewer weapons, and usually both.


A new kind of M.A.D.

Back in the good ol’ days of the Cold War — a showdown between the U.S. and the Soviet Union — both sides relied on Mutually Assured Destruction to keep the, um, peace. But now China is expanding its atomic arsenal. North Korea and Iran are rattling nuclear sabers. The U.S. and Russia are issuing veiled threats of nuclear war. “The risk of a nuclear weapon being used is currently higher than at any time since the depths of the Cold War,” Izumi Nakamitsu, the UN’s disarmament chief, warns. “All states must avoid taking any actions that could lead to escalation, mistake or miscalculation,” she added. The calculus has become less Mutually Assured Destruction than Mistaken Atomic Decisions.

This becomes more worrisome when pondering the growing role of artificial intelligence. Last month, a bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced the Block Nuclear Launch by Autonomous Artificial Intelligence Act. “Any decision to launch a nuclear weapon,” it says(PDF), “should not be made by artificial intelligence.” On May 4, lawmakers proposed legislation(PDF) seeking a global freeze on the testing, production, and deployment of nuclear weapons.

Don’t count on Congress giving either bill serious consideration. There’s an eerie American parallel between those who believe the best way to defend the nation is to buy more nuclear weapons and those who believe the best way to defend yourself is to buy more AR-15s. The longer we embrace the fiction that bigger and better guns make us safer, the more dangerous our world becomes.


Here’swhat has caught The Bunker’s eye recently

The dogfight continues

The Air Force is trying again to shoot down the A-10 attack plane, beloved by grunts on the ground, Dan Grazier here at the Project On Government Oversight reported May 8.

Early checkout

A clerical error let at least 190 Army pilots out of the service years early, costing taxpayers “hundreds of years of service from experienced aviators, in addition to hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of training,” Davis Winkie reported May 4 in Army Times.

Special delivery drones

The Marines want $13 million next year for 41 “tactical resupply unmanned aircraft systems” ($325,000 a pop) capable of carrying 150 pounds up to nine miles to jarheads on the front lines, Hope Hodge Seck reported in Marine Times May 5.

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