The Buzz

America's Next Stealth Bomber: A Nuclear-Armed Bomber?

Recapitalizing the air-breathing segment of the American nuclear triad has generally not been the U.S. Air Force’s first argument for developing its new Long-Range Strike Bomber (LRS-B). Sustaining a global capacity for massive, repeated, marginally economical surgical strikes has long been the core of the argument. But nuclear certification is planned for 2027, just two years after the Air Force’s declaration of initial operating capability in 2025. Eliminating the immediate nuclear requirement would save some money in the beginning, but only a small fraction of the cost of the whole program. For this reason, adding nuclear capability to the LRS-B continues to be programmatically appealing. The bigger question, however, may be how useful the LRS-B is for American nuclear strategy.

We have heard the argument that the bomber force is a useful signal of the potential for nuclear escalation in a crisis. The United States sometimes does forward-deploy B-2s and B-52s to airfields in the United Kingdom or Guam, to send strong messages to Russia, China, or North Korea—or any other country from which political or military leaders haphazardly threaten nuclear attacks on Warsaw, Los Angeles, or Austin. We say possibly because it’s unclear just how seriously that posturing is taken. Otherwise, a nuclear-armed bomber force makes little marginal contribution to deterring a large-scale nuclear attack. Without wartime dispersal, airfields for USAF bombers comprise just five well-known aim points, easily destroyed with a handful of nuclear explosions.

In contrast, the relative advantage of the Minuteman ballistic missile force—beyond its low operating cost—is the 400 aim-points it presents any attacker. Destroying all those silos would elicit an intense U.S. response given the large scale devastation that would undoubtedly occur. Even if these attacks were conducted with low-yield weapons, the death, destruction, and fallout from so many atomic explosions would be considerable and long-lasting. Depending on the wind, Bozeman, Billings, or Bismarck could be at least rendered uninhabitable. An enemy would have to be reckless to presume that sort of bombardment could be conducted without an intense, and most likely immediate, response.

The problem, however, is symmetrical. Military planners must assume that even a single ballistic launch from a North American silo would be detected almost immediately by an enemy, and could quite possibly compel a nuclear response even while the weapon was still in flight. Land-based ballistic missiles also cannot attack just any target. The Minutemen are awkwardly constrained in their target sets, as a shot towards China needs to fly over Russian Siberia possibly eliciting an unintended response.

In comparison, a successful penetration by an air-breathing bomber would detonate a nuclear bomb prior to detection. A strike could disrupt or even destroy the enemy's nuclear command-and-control network, and theoretically could decapitate the political leadership, without their ever knowing what had happened. Relatively small nuclear bunker-busters could destroy China’s relatively small intercontinental missile force in its silos, with the fallout killing hundreds, not millions.

That said, Keir Lieber of Georgetown and Daryl Press of Dartmouth have argued that the U.S. Navy’s Ohio-class submarines (and their eventual replacements) could achieve the same result. Both a decapitating strike and a blanketing of China’s ballistic missile fields could be achieved from submarines silently moved forward into the western Pacific, firing Trident missiles on depressed-trajectory shots. The leadership in Beijing would have only a few minutes past detection in which to respond— very probably not enough before the weapons impacted. Moreover, eight Ohios are at sea at any time. The fleet thus generally comprises ten aim points, but only their bases at Bangor, Washington and King’s Bay, Georgia are known for sure. The American submarines are very hard to find, and no enemy has the submarine fleet to find them all at once.