As the U.S. military continues to grapple with sequestration, U.S. Air Force (USAF) and Navy (USN) officials have both indicated that their services’ nuclear missions will receive priority when deciding where to implement the mandated spending cuts.
The U.S. nuclear triad currently consists of long-range bomber aircraft, intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) and nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines, with the USAF operating the first two weapon systems and the U.S. Navy acting as the guardians of the nation’s undersea deterrent.
In testimony to the House Armed Services Committee this week, Air Force Chief of Staff General Mark A. Welsh III stated that the development of a future bomber fleet will be one of the USAF’s top three priorities in terms of acquisition.
“Our top three acquisition priorities remain the KC-46, the F-35, and the Long Range Strike Bomber (LRS-B),” Welsh told the Congress members, according to his published testimony. This was consistent with previous statements by Air Force officials like top acquisition chief, William LaPlante.
Earlier in the week, Gen. Welsh spoke at length about the importance of the next-generation bomber and the USAF’s nuclear mission during a speech at the Air Force Association Air & Space Conference.
Regarding the USAF’s nuclear mission in general, Global Security Newswire quoted Welsh as saying: “The nuclear mission — continuing to strengthen the enterprise — is still our No. 1 priority in the United States Air Force and it will remain that way…. In our nuclear inventory, we have two-thirds of the triad that provides nuclear deterrence for the United States of America. That’s a huge responsibility.”
He also called the next-generation bomber a “must-have capability.”
Starting sometime after 2020, the U.S. Air Force expects to begin building 80 to 100 new long-range stealth bombers to replace some of the service’s retiring aircraft, like the B-1. The USAF is pushing for the next-generation bombers to be built in substantially higher numbers than the B-2 bombers were, in anticipation of having to operate in anti-access/area denial environments that could result in substantial losses.
The Pentagon has already asked for US$379 million in research and development costs for the Long-Range Strike bomber program in fiscal 2013. According to GSN, when procurement actually begins early next decade, the program could cost upwards of US$10 billion annually.
Altogether, the USAF is estimating that building the new bomber fleet will cost US$55 billion, or about US$550 million per plane. Prudence and history suggests that the program will ultimately cost substantially more.
The fact that the USAF is continuing to advance the program despite these costs indicates just how much importance it places on fielding a capable new bomber fleet. During his Congressional testimony this week General Welsh painted a bleak picture of the effects sequestration will have on the Air Force’s capabilities, noting that the number of personnel in the service is already approaching an all-time low, and additional cuts of 25,000 individuals (4 percent of the total workforce) will be necessary over the next five years if sequestration is not reversed.
Welsh also told the House Armed Services Committee that the size of the Air Force’s fleet is likely to shrink by up to 550 aircraft or 9 percent of the current total in the next five years if sequestration is implemented. Some defense analysts are even more dire about the USAF’s future outlook, with one noting this week that, “It’s possible the Air Force could shrink to a core force barely half today’s size” under plausible future acquisition scenarios.
Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Adm. Jonathan W. Greenert painted an equally bleak picture of sequestration this week, while mounting a similarly vigorous defense of his service’s nuclear mission. Speaking at the same Congressional hearing as Welsh, Adm. Greenert went through a laundry list of systems that would be delayed or cancelled and missions that would be curtailed if sequestration is not reversed. This included the USN fielding a fleet in 2020 that would be the same size as today’s fleet but with less lethality, and a failure to beef up the U.S. naval presence in the Pacific theater.
However, Adm. Greenert painted a vastly different picture when he turned to how the program to replace the current Ohio-class SSBNs would be affected by sequestration, stating:
“We would still be able to sustain today’s ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) force. The SSBN(X) [next-generation SSBN] would still deliver in 2030 to replace retiring Ohio class SSBN while meeting requirements for SSBN presence and surge. This is the top priority program for the Navy.”
That the next-generation SSBN is the Navy’s top budgetary priority is particularly remarkable from a historical standpoint; the Navy leadership initially staunchly opposed building a sea-based ballistic missile force in the 1950s partially out of fear that its immense costs would impede the acquisition of more conventional platforms. As previously reported, these concerns seem valid in light of the huge costs of the SSBN(X) program, which threatens to sink the U.S. Navy fleet.
More relevantly, the USAF and USN’s prioritization of their nuclear missions seems slightly at odds with the spirit of President Obama’s desire to substantially reduce the size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Although the Obama administration has repeatedly pledged to maintain an adequate deterrent force so long as any nuclear weapons exist, it has also sought to deemphasize nuclear weapons in the U.S. national security strategy.
On the other hand, maintaining a robust and diverse U.S. nuclear arsenal could be beneficial for non-proliferation, as it could deter U.S. allies from seeking to build their own nuclear weapons. There have been a number of signs recently that the U.S. is growing increasingly concerned about the possibility that Japan and/or South Korea will pursue an independent nuclear arsenal. As The Diplomat previously reported, the U.S. has been giving Japanese officials access to its nuclear delivery systems.
Although there has been no confirmation that South Korean officials have received similar access, it’s quite likely that they have. Moreover, senior U.S. officials have publicly reaffirmed Washington’s strong commitment to extended deterrence on the Korean Peninsula. During a trip to South Korea back in March, Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter stated, “In particular, we’ve remained steadfast to our commitment to extended deterrence offered by the U.S. nuclear umbrella and will ensure that all of its capabilities remain available to the [U.S.-ROK] alliance.”
Still, the U.S. Air Force and Navy’s commitment to maintain a robust nuclear arsenal could also be a harbinger of the U.S. reemphasizing the role of nuclear weapons in its defense posture in Asia in the future. As the People’s Liberation Army continues to narrow the conventional military gap with the U.S. military, it will be increasingly difficult for Washington to maintain its defense commitments to the region through non-nuclear means.
The U.S. encountered a similar problem in trying to defend Europe from the massive Red Army during the Cold War. Washington dealt with that challenge by emphasizing its superior nuclear forces over the Soviet Union and it’s certainly possible that it will ultimately return to such a strategy in defending Asia in the decades ahead.