MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. — It is the year 2030, and the US Air Force is facing a nuclear war.
Eighty-year-old B-52s, armed with the latest standoff weapons, patrol the skies. Shiny new intercontinental ballistic missiles stand at the ready. And the stealthy Long Range Strike-Bomber slips past enemy defenses.
Earlier this month, Air Force Global Strike Command conducted a large-scale nuclear war game at Maxwell Air Force Base, designed to assess whether the Air Force is developing and fielding the right kinds of capabilities to meet future threats. The exercise explored AFGSC's ability to operate across the full spectrum of a nuclear conflict, from conventional to nuclear strike missions.
"We want to wargame the entirety of our capabilities," Brig. Gen. Ferdinand Stoss, AFGSC's director for requirements, plans and programs, told Defense News in an interview here Dec. 9. "We want to see if we are getting the bang for the buck we need."
The Air Force's plan to modernize its nuclear force includes building a next-generation bomber — the LRS-B — upgrading the existing fleet of B-1, B-52 and stealthy B-2 bombers, and replacing the Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) with a Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD).
AFGSC's war game, conducted Dec. 7 through 10 here at the Air Force Wargaming Institute, was designed to help the Air Force find better ways to use the future force in the battlefield, Stoss explained. AFGSC commander Gen. Robin Rand will evaluate the findings, and decide whether to "elevate" them to top leadership, Stoss said.
"The purpose of this wargaming center is our customers — the warfighters of the world — have a problem they want explored, they come to us and we can quickly give them some answers and give them some real facts and analysis and data behind what choices they might want to make," said Lt. Gen. Steven Kwast, Air University commander, in a Dec. 10 interview. "That's what Gen. Rand and the Global Strike Command were able to achieve using the muscle of thinking here at Air University."
A B-2 Spirit takes off Nov. 8 during an exercise at Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo.
Photo Credit: Tech. Sgt. Miguel Lara III/US Air Force
Stoss declined to give certain details on the war game, for instance what nations are involved, but said commanders were finding value in a "mixed force" — using legacy and as well as future platforms.
Operators imagined a 2030 scenario where the Air Force’s fleet of B-52s are upgraded with the Link 16 communications network, an enhanced radar, improved standoff weapons, and re-engined for a 25 percent greater range. Meanwhile, all of the B-1s have completed a full Integrated Battle Station (IBS) upgrade — which includes a modern data link communications network, as well as and other equipment improvements — as well as an engine upgrade.
The Air Force has also modernized all of the B-2s with a new defensive management system, including a new graphics processor and new antennas.
During the exercise, commanders found the upgraded B-52 can "easily" fly to 2050 and beyond, Stoss said, which would make some of the planes 100 years old. But although the future Stratofortress can launch missiles into contested territory from standoff distances, its ability to actually operate in that environment is limited, he said.
In some cases, the Air Force needs that "leap into the future" that comes with a next-generation platform like LRS-B, particularly to operate in contested battle space, Stoss stressed. Operators need some number of new LRS-Bs "to provide enhanced capability to operate in the anti-access/aerial-denial environment," he said.
This is the second time AFGSC has conducted a nuclear war game. The first, which took place in December 2013, was a "nascent" effort, while the most recent iteration was "the real deal," Stoss said. Air Force officials intended to do the second event sooner, but it was delayed due to sequestration cuts, he noted.
Top military officials, like Kwast, US Strategic Command chief Adm. Cecil Haney and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh have recently re-emphasized nuclear war-gaming as a way to enhance strategic thinking across the service, according to an Air Force statement.
In order to more rapidly provide critical advice to leadership facing a dynamic world, Kwast's team at Air University is taking advantage of modern technologies to speed up the pace of war-gaming, he told Defense News.
"We take this war-gaming muscle of thinking and we just do it more rapidly., s So instead of having to spend a lot of money and a lot of time preparing, and then being very slow at giving advice to our national leaders, we can do it very quickly," Kwast said., "bBut with the same analytic rigor and the same precision, because we’re taking advantage of computing technologies and simulation technologies, modeling technologies, coding technologies."