By Kris Osborn - Warrior Maven 

(Washington, D.C.) Could the U.S. ever ensure effective nuclear deterrence with just nuclear-armed bombers and submarines? Could the mission be accomplished without any ICBMs? … essentially no “land-leg” for the triad.

However unlikely or at odds with recent history this concept may be, or however surprising given the current threat conditions, the question is now being raised in Congress and by non-proliferation advocates seeking to both save money and disarm.

Gen. Timothy Ray, Commander of Air Force Global Strike Command, recently said his command only “implements” and does not make policy decisions, but did make reference to how the ICBM makes a difference.

“The Triad is an expression of national policy, and our ability to do more with bombers is underwritten by the ICBM. It is a well-worn path about the responsiveness of the ICBM, immediacy and flexibility of the bombers and the survivability of the undersea force,” Ray told The Mitchell Institute in a video interview.

Ray is also naturally responsible for meeting and responding to the current threat circumstance regarding nuclear weapons deployed by potential U.S. adversaries. This topic receives a lot of attention as many Congressional reports and other public studies are clear to point out the accelerated pace at which China is adding ICBMs to its arsenal. Not long ago, Ray made a public comment that the Chinese plan to double the size of their nuclear arsenal by the end of the decade.

“This triad lives in the context of a modernized Russian triad.The triad lives in the context of a real and rapidly growing Chinese triad, and it lives in the mind of our allies,” Ray said.

An interesting Air Force TV report called “Around the Air Force” seems to reinforce this plan by stating that efforts to modernize the land-based leg through weapons systems and command and control upgrades is well underway.

Ray did seem to acknowledge that what he called a “Diad,” or nuclear defense posture based solely upon air bombers and submarine launched nuclear-armed ballistic missiles, would require some major adjustments. Ray seemed clear that, if directed by national authority, he would try to implement a Diad.

“If I had to go to a Diad, I would need more bombers, more bombers on alert, more tanker crews, and I would need to disperse more to do more things than I can do operationally,” Ray said.

While being clear to explain he does not make policy but rather implements it on behalf of national leaders, Ray said deliberations about the particular composition of a U.S. nuclear force would likely pertain to what needed to be held at risk, and how fast a counterattack effort might need to respond.

The Pentagon’s 1960s-era Minuteman III ICBMs is known to be balancing somewhat precariously along a threshold of obsolescence, yet the weapon is somehow still firing and operating in large measure due to decades of upgrades, enhancements and maintenance work and various sustainment efforts.

Questions, debates and concerns about the need to modernize the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal have circulated for decades, a reason why many believe the now arriving Ground Based Strategic Deterrent is long overdue. The new ICBM program, which is up and running and underway to fire off by the end of the decade, has also been the subject of controversy as some in Congress argue it might not be necessary or may simply be too expensive.

However, interestingly, in what might seem surprising to some, Pentagon calculations have found that building a new GBSD for the long term saves as much as $38 billion dollars when compared to further extending the Minuteman III.

“One of the key things with GBSD is an ability to sustain and operate into the future. Every way we look at this, the most cost effective way was not to life-extend the Minuteman III. Life-extending Minuteman III was not a viable path. There is an extensive price tag for trying to modernize and sustain the Minuteman III because you will need to replace parts that weren’t meant to be in the ground that long,” Ray said.

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Ray explained that multiple nuclear posture reviews and formal Pentagon cost analysis assessments going as far back as 2010 have catalogued expenses associated with modernizing the ground leg of the U.S. Triad. The cost of trying to keep the Minuteman III alive continues to far exceed the cost of the GBSD, even though GBSD expenses have been rising due to developments with the program.

Ray further elaborated that propulsion systems, electronic circuitry and guidance technology would all also need to be refined, sustained and upgraded in order to ensure the Minuteman III could remain functional in a relevant way. A key rationale for GBSD was simply to ensure functional and effective ICBMs were “kept in the fight.”

The GBSD is being engineered to bring new levels of reliability, targeting and guidance technologies to sustain the U.S. ground-fired ICBM fleet well into the 2080s and beyond. Software upgrades, for instance, can add new guidance systems, reliability technologies and targeting sensors to the weapon as new innovations emerge, an important factor given that the new ICBM is slated to serve for decades and beyond. The possibility for ongoing modernization was intentionally built into early designs of the weapon, due to the use of digital engineering techniques able to replicate technological detail and help establish common computer standards enabling continued upgrades. It would make sense that the weapons were built with a specific mind to ongoing modernization, given that the U.S. Air Force has a long history of upgrading and maintaining ICBMs

Minuteman III Obsolescence

As part of the transition from Minuteman III to GBSD, the Air Force has maintained a high op tempo regarding upgrades to the older platform to make it viable, relevant and functional until the new ICBM arrives at the end of the decade. Over the years, despite the pressing need for a new generation of ICBMs, the Air Force has pushed to incorporate a large number of upgrades to the Minuteman III, given its age. During one test last Fall, Air Force Global Strike Command fired off a Minuteman III to assess and verify reentry vehicle performance and gather data. Last October, a Minuteman III reentry vehicle traveled more than forty-two hundred miles to the Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands, according to an Air Force Global Strike statement.

Despite the ongoing efforts to flex sustainment of the Minuteman III to avoid any kind of a “missile gap” leading up to the arrival of the GBSD, any delays or problems with GBSD could introduce unforeseen and significant implications, senior Air Force leaders explain.

Pacific Launched ICBMs

The Air Force is already finding locations for its now underway new Ground Based Strategic Deterrent ICBM, following news that both Hill AFB in Utah and Vandenberg AFB in California have been cleared as places for the weapon after passing environmental assessments.

A final environmental assessment determined that having the GBSD at those locations would have “no significant impact upon cultural or natural resources,” an Air Force TV report said. The report also cleared an Atol area in the Pacific as a location for test demonstrations for both the GBSD and Minuteman III.

Citing ongoing work with the GBSD, the Air Force report said service engineers and weapons developers were working to modernize the land-based leg of the nuclear Triad, work on command and control upgrades, improve weapons systems and supporting infrastructure.

Dispersing ICBMs in this fashion, should they ultimately be based in Utah and California, might offer slightly different levels of reach or angles of approach. New launch trajectory options introduce a few interesting tactical possibilities, as the current arsenal of ICBMs is spread out across a vast expanse of three states spanning North Dakota, Wyoming and Montana. Having them spread across a wide swatch of terrain makes them less likely to be destroyed quickly or in rapid succession in the event of some kind of attack. Of course land fired ICBMs can travel through space to just about anywhere on earth regardless, having one able to fire from the California coast could prove to be strategically useful. It might position a U.S. nuclear response contingency along the border with the Pacific ocean and therefore be in better position to both use sensors and warning radar to detect incoming threats from Asia or launch attacks in the direction of China.

In the case of Vandenberg California, it seems significant that the Pentagon might place offensive ICBMs in the same location as it currently has its Ground-Based Interceptors. Vandenberg is a crucial location for missile defense as it offers an opportunity to synergize both offensive and defensive missile strategies and tactics. Perhaps an incoming threat is detected by networked command and control flying across the Pacific, a Vandenberg AFG-based Interceptor missile could be launched immediately while simultaneously being supported by an offensive counterattack.

Time to target is also important, meaning the length of time it will take an ICBM to travel through space during the mid-course phase before descending upon its target. Simply put, a California-based ICBM would reach China or key targets in the Pacific much faster than a North Dakota-launched weapon. Typically, ICBMs travel so fast they can often complete the entire mid-course space-flight phase of its trajectory in about 20 minutes. A closer ICBM naturally takes less time, so it stands to reason that California based ICBMs can strengthen deterrence against China, a strategy growing in importance given the extent to which China is known to be moving quickly on plans to double the size of its overall nuclear arsenal within just 10 years.

-- Kris Osborn is the Managing Editor of Warrior Maven and The Defense Editor of The National Interest --

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.