June 23, 2014—The Air Force continues to display ambivalence
toward its role and responsibility in the nuclear deterrent aspects of national
When former Defense Secretary Robert Gates resumed the Air
Force's program for a new bomber in 2011, he referred to it as a "nuclear-capable
Consecutive Nuclear Posture Reviews have validated the triad
of nuclear bombers and ground-launched and sea-launched nuclear ballistic
missiles as the fundamental, overarching security strategy for the nation.
The 2013 National Defense Authorization Act includes a
provision that requires the Air Force to ensure the new bomber has a nuclear
weapons capability at initial fielding and full nuclear testing and
certification within two years after that. As recently as May, Defense
Secretary Chuck Hagel, in testimony before Congress, reiterated the nuclear
triad as the basis for the nation's defense strategy.
With such overwhelming clarity in support of the triad and
the nuclear-capable bomber role within it, why does the Air Force continue to
turn a blind eye toward the nuclear mission for Long-Range Strike Bomber, the new bomber?
Initially, the former Air Force Secretary and former Chief
of Staff stated that the new bomber would carry and deliver only conventional
weapons. Later, the Air Force said it would provide some "provisions"
for a nuclear role, but would defer installing them fully for cost reasons.
Even after the Congress prodded the Air Force to accept full
nuclear capability in LRS-B, the Air Force, in its public statements, has
consistently not advocated the nuclear deterrent role of LRS-B.
In June of this year, the Air Force's assistant secretary
for acquisition, in an interview with Air
Force Magazine, said, "From a schedule and national perspective, the
nuclear variant [of LRS-B] wasn’t the first version we needed," and
"adequate provision will be made to make it easier to make a future
A week later, the Air Force was forced to release a
statement clarifying his remarks by reiterating its commitment in accordance
with the Congressional requirement for full nuclear capability and testing
within two years of initial fielding.
But, why the persistent reluctance among Air Force leaders to
fully embrace the nuclear deterrent role for LRS-B? This is out of character
for the Air Force given the value and role of strategic nuclear bombers
throughout its history. With the current re-emphasis on nuclear deterrence in
national security policy, one would think the nuclear mission for LRS-B would
be first in priority.
Moreover, there are many other reasons to promote the
nuclear mission for LRS-B. As our military forces shrink while those of
potential adversaries grow, those forces
that are nuclear-capable increase in value. In the Cold War, the USSR and
Warsaw Pact outmanned us on the ground, at sea, and in the air. We depended on
our nuclear forces, not numbers, to compensate and deter aggression.
The nuclear bomber enforces extended deterrence. We have
committed to our allies that they can depend on us for their nuclear deterrent.
Our allies count on our nuclear bomber force more so than the nuclear missiles to
provide extended deterrence.
Ironically, the bomber leg of the triad is the weakest,
another reason to advocate a new nuclear bomber. We have only 60 nuclear bombers,
44 B-52s and 16 B-2s. B-52s cannot
penetrate even modest defenses and must launch nuclear cruise missiles to
contribute. B-2s are few in number and their ability to penetrate defenses continues
to atrophy in the face of modern air defenses. The LRS-B must become the
backbone of the bomber leg of the triad.
For these reasons and many more, Air Force leaders should
restore the nuclear deterrence ethos throughout the Air Force, champion the
nuclear-capable bomber's unique contribution to the triad, and reorder its
priorities by advocating the nuclear deterrent mission as Job One for LRS-B.
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