Gen. Timothy Ray, head of the US Air Force’s Global Strike Command, the unit controlling the ground and air components of the US nuclear triad, has given America’s potential "strategic adversaries" an insight into the Pentagon’s planning for fighting a nuclear war.
In a recent interview with the Air Force Times, Ray explained that unlike the adversaries the US has fought over the past two decades or so, Russia and China, should they become adversaries, would threaten the physical annihilation of the US in the event of conflict.
This, the general stressed, means that the US needs to modernise all three components of its nuclear triad, including bombers, silo-based intercontinental ballistic missiles and nuclear submarines, in order to respond to Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Brown’s recent demand that the Air Force “accelerate, change or lose.”
The United States is already in the middle of a $1.5 trillion programme aimed at upgrading its nuclear arsenal, which was started under President Barack Obama and continued and beefed up under Trump, who found more funds for the creation of new tactical and sea-launched nukes and lowered the threshold for their use in the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review.
By comparison, according to Pentagon estimates, Russia has spent the equivalent of $28 billion, or about 2 percent of the US, modernising its own nuclear arsenal in recent years, with that programme nearing completion with the addition of new hypersonic missile systems capable of evading missile defences. There are no reliable figures on China’s long-term nuclear weapons spending, although the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons estimates that Beijing committed about $10.4 billion to its strategic arsenal in 2019, about 30 percent of the $35.4 billion the US spent the same year.
Pentagon Playing Catch-up
Despite the lopsided spending, Ray said Washington’s potential adversaries are modernising "in a way that the United States is not", and that these "peer nations" have already in effect upgraded both their nuclear capabilities and the systems to deliver them.
According to the commander, from his office’s side, the Pentagon’s effort to modernise America’s nuclear triad includes the Air Force’s work to create the B-21 Raider, a next-generation strategic stealth bomber being developed by Northrop Grumman which is expected to enter service in 2025, and to complement Northrop Grumman’s B-2 Spirit, the Rockwell B-1 Lancer, and the ancient but dependable Boeing B-52 Stratofortress which the Air Force already has at its disposal. In the meantime, substantial spending is needed to maintain and modernise the existing stock of aircraft, he said.
Ray noted for example that the Pentagon continues to face problems with its B-1 fleet, saying some of the aircraft require “significant structural repairs,” and that Global Strike plans to retire 17 of the 104 planes built because of their improper use in the Middle East in recent years.
The Pentagon plans to order about 100 B-21s, with a 2016 projected cost of $564 million per plane. Pentagon estimates have been known for being woefully wrong, however. The B-21’s predecessor, the B-2, spiked to a cost of $2.1 billion per aircraft in the mid-1990s when accounting for R&D, production and testing.
The B-21’s first flight was originally planned to take place next year, but was recently delayed to no earlier than 2022 because of unforeseen difficulties.
Last week, the Pentagon awarded Northrop Grumman a $13.3 billion contract for the creation of a next-generation intercontinental ballistic missile, dubbed the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD).
Commenting on that development, Ray said the GBSD would be a welcome replacement for the Minuteman III ICBM presently in service, which he pointed out was originally only meant to serve for about a decade as a transitional missile system, but which ended up being with the Air Force for some 50 years now.
“Our contribution to the joint fight, and frankly national-level power, is not a birthright and must be continuously invested in and evolved,” Ray explained. “We must keep our nuclear modernisation and investments in long-range strike stable and on time to ensure we’re positioned for the 21st century.”
The GBSD is expected to come online by 2027, and to replace the Minuteman IIIs fully by 2036. They are expected to use a composite fuel, providing a range of at least 15,000 km, but no significant modifications to the existing Minuteman III missile silos in Wyoming, Montana and North Dakota are expected.
No Rest for the Wicked
The commander also emphasised that notwithstanding the coronavirus pandemic, his command “never faltered” in continuing to train for the mission they hope never to have to fly, sending bombers and crews to the western Pacific amid tensions with Beijing, as well as Europe and the Arctic against Russia.
These training efforts have not gone unnoticed by the Russian military. In the past three weeks alone, Russian fighter jets have been scrambled at least six times to intercept US bombers over the Bering Sea and the Sea of Okhotsk in the Far East, as well as the Black and Baltic seas along Russia’s western frontiers.
Speaking to Russian media earlier this month, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu confirmed that the MoD has observed a major rise in US drills simulating missile strikes against Russia. Shoigu added that Russia “has no other choice” but to “be strong” to deter these potential threats.
Why Has Russia’s Nuclear Modernisation Been So Much More Modest?
Compared with the US, Russia has taken a different approach to the modernisation of its nuclear triad, focusing on the deep modernisation of existing weapons systems, such as the granddaddy Tupolev Tu-95 (NATO designation ‘Bear’), the Tupolev Tu-160 ‘White Swan’, as well as the creation of hypersonic missiles, such as the Kinzhal air-launched nuclear capable hypersonic cruise missile, to ensure an effective Russian deterrent to a US/NATO first strike, conventional or otherwise. On the ICBM front, the Strategic Missile Troops are soon expected to take delivery of the new RS-28 Sarmat, which will be complemented by the Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle, which can accelerate to blazing speeds of up to Mach 20, and thereby similarly avoid interception by missile defences.
Russia began work on the creation of hypersonic missile systems in 2002, immediately after the Bush administration tore up the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Moscow got a head start on hypersonic systems thanks to fundamental research in this field carried out by Soviet engineers in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s by the Raduga Design Bureau, the Baranov Central Institute of Aviation Motor Development, and the NPO Mashinostroyeniya rocket design bureau. The work from these institutes was frozen in the 1990s and early 2000s amid warming relations between the West and Russia, but they have since proved invaluable as Washington began its effort to build a missile shield capable of shooting down nuclear weaponry, thus threatening global strategic stability and parity between the nuclear powers.