By Kris Osborn, Managing Editor, Warrior Maven
Senior Pentagon leaders have offered an initial window into the soon-to-be released DoD Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) aimed at addressing the significance and continued acceleration of US nuclear weapons.
Once the NPR is released, which is expected early next month, many of the details will not be available for public consumption. Nonetheless, Joint Staff Director Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie told reporters that the report unambiguously affirms the critical importance of the nuclear triad, all three dimensions to the US arsenal of nuclear weapons: ICBMs, submarines and bombers.
“I would tell you that we have affirmed the utility of the triad to a variety of studies going back several years. Sometimes the triad
comes under attack as not being sufficiently flexible enough,” McKenzie told reporters according to a Pentagon transcript.
McKenzie’s comments offered one of the first glimpses at the NPR, which appears to unequivocably aligned with current Air Force and Navy efforts to accelerate nuclear weapons modernization. Despite the funding challenges, and ongoing upgrades to legacy nuclear weapons, the aging arsenal has been critically in need of modernization. Senior DoD leaders, buttressed by Congressional support, are now moving quickly to engineer new weapons across the nuclear triad.
DoD is immersed in current efforts to fast-track development and prototypes of a new Ground Based Strategic Deterrent ICBM, Air Force developers have told Warrior Maven.
\\\\*Lockheed GBSD photo - although Lockheed was not chosen as an initial GBSD developers\\\\*
Early prototyping, including expected prototype “shoot off” testing is slated for 2020, service developers have told Warrior Maven in recent interviews. Northrop Grumman and Boeing are both now under contract to build the new weapon. The Air Force plans to build at least 400 GBSDs, Air Force senior leaders have said.
Critical elements of the new ICBM, developed to replace the decades-old Minuteman IIIs, will feature a new engineering method along with advanced command control, circuitry and guidance systems, engineers have said.
Regarding the Air component, the Air Force recently completed a critical design review of its new B-21 Raider nuclear-capable stealth bomber. As is often the case with nuclear weapons, many of the details regarding the development of this platform are not available, but there is widespread discussion among US Air Force leaders that the bomber is expected to usher in a new era of stealth technology; much of the discussion focuses upon the bomber’s ability to operate above advanced enemy air defenses and “hold any target at risk anywhere in the world,” the Air Force Military Deputy for Acquisition Lt. Gen. Arnold Bunch has told Warrior Maven in past interviews.
Early available renderings of the bomber show what appears to be an advanced B-2 like design, yet possibly one with a lower heat signature and improved stealth properties. However, service leaders are quick to point out that, given advancements in Russian air defenses, stealth will surge forward as “one arrow in a quiver” of nuclear attack possibilities. This is due to the fact that the most modern air defenses, such as S-400 and the emerging S-500s, are built with faster processing speed, improved digital networking connecting firing and radar nodes and longer-range targeting technology, among other things.
Such a threat-oriented phenomenon is one reason, nuclear weapons planners say, the emerging Long Range Standoff Weapon, a nuclear cruise missile, is now being fast-tracked to give bombers a longer-range air-fired nuclear strike capability.
Concurrently, the Air Force is surging forward with a massive B-2 modernization overhaul, involving new digital nuclear weapons capability and the integration of a developing system called the Defensive Management System. This enables the B-2, which Air Force developers acknowledge may indeed be more vulnerable to advanced air defenses than in earlier years when it was first
built, to more quickly recognize locations of enemy air defenses at safer ranges as a means to avoid detection.
Finally, shifting to a program widely regarded as among the most significant across the DoD enterprise, the Navy is already underway with early development of the new nuclear-armed Columbia-Class ballistic missile submarines. Several key current efforts with this, including early “tube and hull” forging of missile tubes, work on a US-UK common missile compartment – and little discussed upgrades to the Trident II D5 nuclear missiles.
Undersea strategic deterrence, as described by Navy and Pentagon leaders, offers a critical means to ensure a second strike ability in the event of a catastrophic first-strike nuclear attack impacting or disabling other elements of the triad.
While it may seem obvious, nuclear deterrence hinges upon a recognizable, yet vital paradox; weapons of seemingly limitless destructive power – are ultimately employed to “keep the peace” – and save lives. Along these lines, Senior Navy and Air Force nuclear weapons developers routinely make the point that – since the advent of nuclear weapons – the world has managed to avoid massive, large-scale major power force on force warfare.
“I think world developments have actually reaffirmed the importance of the trial and the inherent flexibility that the triad gives the president,” McKenzie added.
While Pentagon leaders rarely, if ever, offer a window into current nuclear-strike capabilities, it is widely discussed that the current North Korean nuclear threat is leading US military planners to envision the full spectrum of nuclear weapons contingencies. Even further, the US did recently send B-2 bombers to the Asian theater – stationing them in Guam.
Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White affirmed that the NPR is expected to emerge in early February
“We are about ensuring lethality,” White said.