With Robert Farley responding to my critique of his Foreign Affairs article, “Ground the Air Force,” our ongoing debate on the pages of the National Interest serves a useful purpose in the larger discussion concerning the roles, missions, and structure of not only the Air Force, but the US military as a whole. Just as with his initial article, it seems Dr. Farley has offered an incomplete picture of airpower and is uneven in his criticism of Air Force leadership.
However, before addressing the specific issues raised in Farley’s latest piece, I first wish to return to his original article and the recent work of Walter Pincus of the Washington Post and Chris Preble of the Cato Institute. All have advocated for the elimination of the bomber and intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) legs of the triad. These “nuclear minimalists” deserve a specific response.
The Minimalist Plan
With President Obama advocating an ever smaller nuclear arsenal, critics of the triad see blood in the water and are misguidedly circling around the bomber and ICBM legs of the triad like hungry sharks in the belief that they will soon have an easy kill. Strategic experience dictates otherwise. Thus, it is time to turn the tables on minimalists and let the predator become the prey.
In short, minimalists advocate a submarine-based nuclear monad and wish to remove all of the (76) remaining B52-H and (19) B-2 stealth bombers from nuclear service—making them conventional weapons only. They also seek to decommission the nation’s (450) ICBMs. Minimalists, as a group, largely urge a nuclear deterrence strategy that relies solely on 12—not even the current 14— Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs). They recommend maintaining 6 SSBNs on constant at-sea alert while 6 submarines are in port or dry dock.
If the United States were to adopt such a policy, America’s ability to effectively deter current and future nuclear adversaries would decline precipitously for several reasons. First, deterrence relies on convincing adversaries that the risks involved in an attack far outweigh any potential rewards. The way to achieve the desired psychological effect on an adversary is best captured by the equation “capability plus will equals credibility.” Moving to a nuclear deterrence strategy that effectively depends on 6 deployed submarines undermines American credibility because it both reduces capability and undercuts will.
Second, the bomber leg of the nuclear triad contributes to deterrence in a very important and distinct way. Since ICBMs and SSBNs are, by design, hidden from view they are poor tools for signaling American resolve should an adversary begin to escalate toward conflict. Within the modern arsenal, the bomber fleet is best equipped to perform such signaling. For example, contrary to popular belief, effective signaling on the part of the USAF “won” the Cuban Missile Crisis, not the US Navy’s blockade. Let me explain.
While President Kennedy was considering options for Cuba, Strategic Air Command (SAC) deployed large numbers of its long-range bombers, loaded with nuclear weapons, to Air Force bases in the Southeast, where they sat wing-tip to wing-tip for the Soviets to see. This act of resolve, along with the naval blockade, sent a very clear message to the Soviet Union: (capability + will = credibility). Absent the movement of SAC bombers, the Cuban Missile Crisis might very well have turned out differently.
Third, ICBMs raise the cost of an attack on the United States, since an adversary must accurately strike and destroy hardened ICBM silos to prevent a counter-attack. Rather than increase instability, as detractors suggest, ICBMs reduce the risk of an attack by dramatically increasing the requirements for success, which has a stabilizing effect. We should not make it easier to become a nuclear peer of the United States, yet moving to a monad would do just that.
Fourth, if the minimalists have their way, America’s adversaries would be well aware that they could destroy SSBNs in port or drydock by a conventional strike against the naval bases at Kings Bay, GA, or Bangor, WA, for example. Furthermore, contrary to what many Americans may believe, Russia and China are developing advanced sea- and space-based submarine detection capabilities that may one day enable them to detect, track, and sink the nation’s at-sea SSBNs. In fact, the United States has itself been perfecting these capabilities since the dark days of the Cold War. Thus, encouraging our adversaries to focus their efforts on anti-submarine warfare by moving to a monad could mean, in essence, that a conventional strike on two bases and a small number of torpedo hits could potentially (though not probably) destroy the entire US nuclear arsenal.
The point in offering this analysis is not to attack the sea-based leg of the nuclear triad, which is vital to the nation’s security, but to highlight that each leg of the triad has distinct strengths and weaknesses that the other legs of the triad complement. It was not dumb luck, pure politics, or happenstance that led to the development of a nuclear triad five decades ago: much careful thought lay behind its creation.