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The Bunker: Old Bombers Fly as Newer ICBMs Die

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: B-52 bombers get their biggest overhaul ever, even as the Pentagon plans to scrap newer ICBMs; electromagnetic pulse weapons as a national-security threat; Little Debbie snacks go AWOL; and more.


Why the rush to build new ICBMs?

On September 4, the Pentagon launched two B-52 bombers over the Middle East in a not-too-subtle warning to Iran. Three days later, on September 7, it launched a Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile from California into the Pacific.

Neither the planes nor the missile carried nuclear weapons.

But they could have.

Let’s check the calendar. The Air Force took delivery of its final B-52H, the only version still flying, from Boeing in October 1962 amid the Cuban Missile crisis. In late November 1978, days after the Jonestown massacre, Boeing also delivered the last Minuteman III ICBM to the Air Force.

Both the bomber and missile have been upgraded since then. In 2012, the Air Force said that the Minuteman missiles were, “basically new missiles except for the shell,” thanks to more than $7 billion in recent upgrades. Likewise, the Air Force just announced that its B-52s — officially labeled B-52A-through-H as they have added new capabilities — will be known as the B-52J (“or possibly B-52K,” according to Air & Space Forces Magazine) once they get new engines and radars.

The overhaul, according to the service, represents “the largest modification in the history” of the B-52, and will keep them flying until 2050 as the new B-21 Raider bomber comes online. In contrast, the Air Force announced September 8 that it is now planning for the “Deactivation, Demilitarization, and Disposal” of the Minuteman III force. The first test flight of its replacement, the Sentinel, is slated for 2023, with operational versions standing alert beginning in 2029.

Normal people, like The Bunker, might wonder why an older weapon (with humans aboard, no less) will see decades more service than newer, unmanned missiles. That’s why they’re not in the military, drafting requirements to justify such atomic jujitsu: “The Minuteman III is a 1970s-era weapon designed to go against Soviet analog defenses,” Navy Admiral Charles Richard, who as chief of U.S. Strategic Command is the nation’s top nuclear warfighter, said last year. “I need a weapon that will work and make it to the target and … penetrate potentially advanced Russian and Chinese systems.” Of course, the B-52 is 1950s technology.

Previous such warnings of desperately needed weapons development have often been proven fanciful, and are especially risky given that the new ICBM is going to be built without any competition among contractors, a leading indicator of waste, fraud, and abuse. Beyond that, a Pentagon-funded September 7 study by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace warns that ICBMs could have “declining strategic value” as ever-more accurate non-nuclear weapons could wipe out fixed targets like ICBMs. “The DOD can and should be more transparent about a program whose costs over the next fifty years will command a sizable portion of the U.S. defense budget,” it concludes.

The Defense Department’s reveal dodging and weaving designed to reach only one conclusion: only the new ICBM can protect the nation. Richard endorses the Air Force’s assessment that it will be cheaper to buy a brand-new fleet of ICBMs than to upgrade the existing missiles. So the Pentagon is pressing ahead. 

Another option is to scrap ICBMs entirely — as former defense secretary William Perry advocates — and move to a nuclear dyad of bombers and submarines. Richard warns that if that happens, U.S. bombers will have to resume standing alert on runways, awaiting World War III, as they did during the Cold War. “What is not often recognized is that we do not have a triad from day to day,” Richard has said. “Day to day, what you have is basically a dyad.”

The Bunker has a dyad of his own: a button and a belt to hold up his pants. No need for suspenders. They haven’t fallen down yet.


As if we don’t have enough to worry about

The Department of Homeland Security has just published guidance (PDF) on how to shield the nation’s vital electronics from electromagnetic pulse (EMP) weapons. EMPhanatics cite a Chinese nuclear blast over the U.S. — theoretically wiping out utilities, computers, communication, and other key services — as the biggest threat.

Like the U.S.’s imaginary Cold War bomber and missile gaps with the Soviet Union — used as crowbars to pry loose funding for more U.S. bombers and ICBMs — the EMP threat is wildly inflated. It seems to be built upon a notion that such an attack would leave the United States defenseless, and that China then would be able to sneak in and take over the country. Or something like that. But if China were willing to fire a nuclear weapon at the United States, why wouldn’t they just… nuke the United States?

“The civilian Critical Infrastructure within the United States faces threats from manmade Electromagnetic Pulse attacks, and from natural EMPs caused by major solar storms,” the DHS report warns. Such shielding is needed so “the President of the United States can communicate with Americans in the event of a national emergency,” the department said in a press release accompanying the report. But as the report itself notes, such communication could prove impossible “due to structural dependencies on unhardened external systems.”

In other words, while a president may be broadcasting over an EMP-hardened system, no one can listen if their electronics have been fried.


Baker says Pentagon regs too costly

The family-owned Tennessee bakery that makes those luscious Little Debbie treats — including Oatmeal Creme Pies, Nutty Buddies, and Swiss Rolls — has decided to stop selling them to Pentagon bases at home and abroad. Complying with DOD regulations “has become increasingly burdensome and costly,” Mike Gloekler, a spokesman for McKee Foods, tells The Bunker.

“As supporters of the men and women who serve the U.S. military this was a very difficult decision for us to make,” he adds. “We believe in the mission of forward-deployed troops, and we understand the impact that the comforts of home have on morale. Perhaps some will see an opportunity to streamline federal contractor compliance.”

Then again, this could simply be a clandestine Pentagon operation. One of every five U.S. troops(PDF) is obese, costing taxpayers “over $1.2 billion annually in higher healthcare spending and lower productivity,” a 2020 report said (PDF).

Nah. The Pentagon has never launched a secret op to save money.


Here’s what has caught The Bunker's eye recently

Really cross examination

Last week former top Pentagon officials were fretting over the state of civil-military relations. In Defense One on September 9, retired Army officer Paul Yingling let them have it for their “mumble[d] platitudes” that dodged the tough questions.

A “national defense renaissance”

Some conservatives are pushing for defense budgets above $1.2 trillion a year — a 50% hike — National Review’s Jimmy Quinn reported September 6.

China halts F-35

Deliveries of the world’s most costly weapon system — the Defense Department’s $400 billion F-35 fighter, designed to defeat China in a future war — have ground to a halt. The Pentagon hit the brakes after it learned that the pumps that help start the jet’s engine use magnets containing a Chinese alloy, Valerie Insinna reported September 7 at Breaking Defense.

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