(Washington, D.C.) It’s called “Bolt out of the Blue,” a massive, unwarned nuclear weapons attack intended to surprise, overwhelm and ultimately destroy an enemy before there could be a chance to respond.
However unlikely, the prospect that a potential adversary might contemplate this kind of effort, which would seek to blanket and instantly neutralize any counterattack options, is something Pentagon strategic thinkers have considered for decades.
Submarine Launched Nuclear-Armed Ballistic Missiles
It is precisely this kind of contingency which, among other things, inspired the third leg of the triad … submarine launched nuclear-armed ballistic missiles able to ensure a catastrophic and decisive second-strike response. This reality, essentially ensuring the destruction of any potential attacker contemplating a “bolt out of the blue” attack, may be the main reason why one has never happened.
This is certainly the thinking of Adm. Charles Richard, Commander of U.S. Strategic Command which overseas the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal.
“We made bolt out of the blue unlikely. Ballistic missile submarines, the -- the responsiveness of the intercontinental leg, our postures, our policies, the way we execute. The reason bolt out of the blue is unlikely is because it's probably not going to work; right. And so we have to be careful when we make future decisions that we don't forget how we got here, lest we return ourselves to a world we don't want to be in,” Richard said, according to a Pentagon transcript.
Richard made this point in the context of explaining the risks associated with any effort to disarm, massively reduce or remove any element of the nuclear triad. The triad, which includes ICBMs, nuclear-armed aircraft and ballistic missile submarines, may be the primary reason the world has not seen a massive great power world war since WWII, a devastating conflict which took millions of lives.
Simply put, Richard seemed to make the point that radically changing the U.S. nuclear deterrence strategic posture could introduce unanticipated and serious new risks.
As part of this conceptual discussion, Richard was asked about comments from some lawmakers and disarmament officials who raise the argument that there simply may not be a need for the land-launched ICBM leg of the triad.
Should such a position be adopted as any kind of new deterrence policy, it introduces the possibility that Air Force’s emerging Ground Based Strategic Deterrent new ICBM could be eliminated.
While Richard was clear to say he offers advice but follows the guidance and direction of commanders and decision-makers tasked with making those decisions, he was clear with his advice that such an idea would not be advisable at all, and even be quite dangerous. Substantially altering or reducing the existing nuclear triad configuration and essential structure, he said, could introduce extremely serious risks. Richard said he believes the U.S. needs ICBMs.
“There is a total amount of capability and capacity that's required to execute the responsibilities that I have been given. I need the -- the forces that we have, to include the intercontinental ballistic missiles, to be able to accomplish all of that,” Richard said.
Minuteman III & New GBSD
It is a concern that has been lingering for quite some time now, what happens if the 1960s-era Minuteman III ages out entirely before the 2029 planned arrival of the new GBSD? The U.S. could be faced with the prospect of simply having no ICBMs.
Richard told reporters he believes that continued maintenance and upgrades of the Minuteman III appear to be on track to successfully bridge the gap, but not without substantial risk.
“You can't take stuff that you got back at the end of the Cold War and to think somehow forever you can continue to make it work, right? There's a point where it becomes not cost-effective to do that, and there's another point out there, where it's not possible at all,” Richard said, according to a Pentagon transcript of his remarks.
Richard added that he believed there was “no more margin,” meaning delays with GBSD or Minuteman III sustainment failures could entirely derail a stable transition.
“I want us to recognize that you can’t indefinitely life-extend anything,” Richard cautioned, according to a Pentagon transcript.
Perhaps with these concerns in mind, the Air Force has been successfully test-firing Minuteman III ICBMs in what could be seen as a clear effort to ensure potential adversaries are well aware that the U.S. has a fully capable existing ICBM arsenal.
Could the early arrival of the new GBSD solve this problem, should that be at all possible?
Early Arrival of New GBSD?
While there are no specific assurances that the weapon will arrive earlier than the late 2020s, it does not seem impossible.
By all reports and comments from senior Pentagon leaders, Northrop Grumman’s GBSD is on track and showing great promise. Furthermore, the program was fast-tracked to success in part through the effective use of digital engineering, a highly accurate method of using computer simulation to expedite development and technological maturation for the weapon.
GBSD has been one of several key weapons systems to specifically benefit greatly from the effective use of computer modeling and digital engineering, as advanced computer algorithms are now able to precisely replicate precise operational and technical details for the purpose of rapid, yet highly effective development.
As part of this, Northrop and Air Force developers are making a specific push to engineer the new GBSD for reliability as a way to prepare for and offset the difficulties associated with sustainment.
Senior Air Force leaders have for many years now emphasized that the new GBSD weapon needs to be engineered for reliability and growth potential, something heavily emphasized throughout the developmental process.
The concept is a clear attempt to learn lessons from the Minuteman III experience and architect a new, upgradable ICBM able to operate into the 2080s. Air Force and industry developers say the new GBSD will be built for longevity, sustainment and a decades-long service life. At the same time, it is likely being built with groundbreaking levels of flight stability and performance technologies to increase the likelihood that an ICBM can successfully fly through or counter enemy countermeasures.
At the same time, in order for these attributes to take full effect, the emerging GBSD needs to arrive in time to avoid what Richard referred to as “uncharted territory” should a transition from Minuteman III to GBSD lead to an unwanted “missile gap.”
“If you want to push that further, right, you are going into uncharted territory. We may be able to chart that territory, but there is an enormous amount of detail that has to go into that, and the only organization that I know who is capable of working through all of that detail is the United States Air Force,” Richard said.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master’s Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.