SPALDING: Maintaining a credible nuclear deterrence

Just as nuclear bombers need refurbishing, their bombs do, too

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Over the years, I have flown literally thousands of practice bomb runs. Each time, I concentrated on the tactics, techniques and procedures of delivering the bomb on time and on target. While I may have been concerned about threats, communications, navigation or a myriad number of things that may cause my run to be less than perfect, there was one thing I never worried about: the weapon.

The credibility of the United States’ nuclear deterrence hangs in the balance as the country decides whether or not to extend the life of the B61 nuclear bomb. As Gen. C. Robert Kehler so eloquently put it during recent congressional testimony, “deterrence statements are backed with credible military forces — that includes reliable weapons, that includes trained people, [and] plans to use them.”

The B61 weapon is more than 40 years old, and its reliability is declining. Nevertheless, there are those that think we can make do with what we have. Philip Coyle, a co-author of the recent Union of Concerned Scientists report on the nuclear enterprise, even went so far as to say that “[National Nuclear Security Administration’s] plan [to refurbish the B61] violates the spirit if not the letter of the administration’s pledge to not develop new nuclear weapons. It sends the wrong message to the rest of the world.”

Let’s use the nuclear bomber inventory as an example to examine the argument. The B-52H is currently undergoing modifications to enhance communication and avionics. Nobody is claiming that at the end of the modification contract the Air Force will have a new bomber. They will still be B-52s.

Some question why we cannot use the B83 instead (a newer weapon), and do away with the B61. As Gen. Kehler mentioned in his congressional testimony of Oct. 29, the B83 is not certified for all of the bombers and fighters required. In addition, the B83 would have to enter a similar life-extension plan entailing more costs in the future.

In order to understand why the B61 must be refurbished, it is helpful to understand the life cycle of weapon systems in the U.S. Air Force inventory. As weapon systems age, their components become obsolete. Original manufacturers sometimes go out of business. In some cases, military contract officers are forced to look for new sources to replicate the original manufacturing or repair process. Over time, this becomes increasingly expensive. Imagine paying 10 times the original cost for a part that is obsolete just so you can keep your 40-plus-year-old car running. Eventually, the cost and lack of new replacement parts makes the weapon system cost-prohibitive and unsustainable.

The B-2, the primary aircraft for the B61, also faces these same challenges, as do other weapon systems in the U.S. nuclear forces inventory. In essence, we can no longer refurbish the parts needed to repair it, so new parts must be designed and produced. Often these new parts carry with them new capability. For example, the original computers in the B-2 are less powerful than today’s smartphones. Fortunately, these computers are in the process of being replaced, and the increased computing power will, in essence, make the B-2 more capable, safe and reliable, as well as less expensive to operate.

The plans and training that go into a credible nuclear deterrent is wasted if the equipment is neither cost-effective to operate nor reliable. Since the 1950s, the United States has invested decades of effort and billions of dollars to develop a nuclear force that is credible. The time, effort and resources required to create the equipment, training and plans that make a credible nuclear deterrent represent an investment in our future security. For the most part, this capability is bought and paid for. Yet, it does require continued diligence to ensure the nuclear deterrent remains credible into the future.

Thus, refurbishing the B61 may seem to be overwhelming in this budget environment, but the alternative is a nuclear weapon of declining reliability. All of the hours spent training and the best plans in the world cannot compensate for this fact. Perhaps more damaging to U.S. foreign policy, however, is the diminished credibility of our nuclear deterrent.

Robert S. Spalding III is a military fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. government, Department of Defense, U.S. Air Force or Air University.

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