The 2013 National Defense Authorization Act, recently signed by President Barack Obama, includes a provision that requires the Air Force to ensure the new bomber in development has a nuclear weapons capability at initial fielding and full nuclear testing and certification within two years after that.
Since the new bomber’s inception, the Air Force has dragged its feet on making it nuclear. At first, it wanted the bomber to be conventional only. Later, the Air Force said it would provide some “provisions” in the baseline configuration but would defer nuclear for cost reasons.
It has taken Congress to prod the Air Force into accepting a full nuclear weapons capability in the initial design and development of its new bomber. This is out of character for the Air Force, given the value and role of strategic nuclear bombers in its history and the current emphasis on nuclear deterrence. The Air Force should put the nuclear mission first.
The most important reason for a new bomber is its deterrence value in the nuclear triad of long-range bombers, land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and sea-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs). The new national security guidance recently revalidated the nuclear triad as the foundation of U.S. defense strategy.
We have made it clear to our friends and allies that they can depend on us to provide their nuclear deterrent. This extended deterrence is vitally important for Japan, South Korea, Australia, our NATO partners and our friends in the Middle East. If we fail to provide a credible deterrent for them, they will be motivated to develop their own nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them. Most of them are capable of doing that in a few years. Extended deterrence, therefore, enforces nonproliferation, a point often overlooked in deterrence strategy.
Furthermore, as we reduce forces in all the military services, those that are nuclear-capable increase in value. In the Cold War, we were significantly outmanned on the ground, at sea and in the air by the USSR and Warsaw Pact. We depended on our nuclear forces, not numbers, to deter aggression.
The same is true today as we look across the globe at nations rearming and increasing their military strength, particularly in Asia and the western Pacific. Our nuclear forces must compensate for our smaller conventional forces.
The long-range, penetrating nuclear bomber has characteristics that ballistic missiles do not have. Bombers give our president more options than ballistic missiles. He can launch them immediately when crises arise in hot spots around the world to reassure ourselves and our allies, and then recall them after their deterrent role has worked.
Nuclear ballistic missiles do not have these characteristics. They have value for deterring attacks on the U.S., but they are inflexible, binary — either in their tubes or on their way — and unrecallable. For these reasons, our allies prefer the long-range bomber for enforcing extended deterrence.
But the Air Force seems to have a blind spot for the nuclear deterrent role of the new bomber and all the reasons cited here for its nuclear capabilities. Deferring the nuclear configuration implies that the Air Force considers nuclear a secondary capability. Adding nuclear features later by retrofit will be far more costly than installing them in the beginning.
Features such as resistance to massive electromagnetic interference and shielding of critical components for nuclear safety and security are essential for nuclear hardness and survivability but may be too costly to retrofit later.
Ironically, despite its importance, the bomber leg of the triad is the weakest. The Air Force just completed a $6 billion upgrade of the ICBM force. The Navy upgrades its SLBM force continually. But our nuclear bomber force continues to age and has been reduced to just 60 nuclear bombers, 42 B-52s and 18 B-2s. The B-52s cannot penetrate even modest defenses. They must launch nuclear cruise missiles to contribute.
The B-2s are too few in number and are also becoming obsolete when measured against the requirement to penetrate high threat defenses.
The Air Force is right in pursuing a new, long-range, penetrating bomber that can put any target in the world at risk and survive against tomorrow’s toughest defenses. But to fulfill its obligations for assured deterrence for the U.S. and our allies, the Air Force should reorder its priorities and make the nuclear mission priority No. 1.
Retired Gen. John Michael Loh is a former U.S. Air Force vice chief of staff and former commander of Air Combat Command. He consults for several defense contractors.