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China’s massive expansion of nuclear weapons, coupled with the sheer size of Russia’s existing and highly modernized arsenal are inspiring the Air Force to take specific, measured steps to ensure its now-emerging Ground Based Strategic Deterrent ICBM will be built to last half a century if not longer.
Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD)
The plan for the Air Force GBSD is that the weapon will need to be consistently upgradeable such that it can function well into the 2070s. This kind of approach, often referred to by developers as “modular” or consisting of “open architecture,” means the weapons technical infrastructure and standards are being engineered with common sets of IP protocol to enable long-term interoperability with new enhancements likely to be added in coming years as next-generation innovations emerge.
“GBSD as a weapon system is being designed to respond to known threats of our current adversaries and adapt in future to threats that may come along due to maturation of technologies. Even the ground piece and the hardening of the C2 network will adapt over time. Cyber today is not going to be cyber tomorrow. Our solutions will have to adapt and be flexible,” Greg Manuel, Sector Vice President and General manager, Northrop Grumman, told The National Interest in an interview.
There are additional reasons why the Pentagon is pursuing GBSD with a sense of urgency. Not only is there a concern to avoid any kind of functional missile gap in capability until GBSD arrives in sufficient numbers, but Pentagon leaders are alarmed and extremely disturbed by China’s massive effort to increase its nuclear arsenal. Pentagon and Congressional reports say China will double its nuclear arsenal over the next decade.
China ICBM Silos
“Only four months ago, commercial satellite imagery discovered what is accepted to nuclear missile fields in western China. Each has nearly 120 ICBM silos. Now these compliment and are added into what they already have,” Adm. Charles Richard, Commander, U.S. Strategic Command, told an audience at the symposium in Huntsville, Ala.
U.S. Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall says China’s move to add hundreds of new land-based, fixed ICBM silos amounts to their developing a “first-strike” capability.
““Most of their weapons have been mobile ICBMs, so this is a very destabilizing move and I am not sure they understand the risk they are taking. Whether they intend it or not … their move creates a first-strike capability. If they continue down this path to increase their ICBM force, then that is a de facto first-strike capability,” Kendall told reporters at the Air Force Association Symposium.
Details related to capabilities advancements with the GBSD are not available for security reasons, yet both Air Force and industry developers say the new weapon will be more reliable, lethal and survivable against a growing sphere of enemy countermeasures.
“We are designing a weapons system that will deliver a payload on its intended target. This weapons system is being designed to be adaptable and being built to ensure it will drive deterrence for the next 50-years,” Manuel said.
Due to START II treaty between Russia and the U.S., the GBSD is being designed with a single warhead. China, however, does not operate with similar constraints and is cited by U.S. Congressional reports as having road-mobile ICBMs with multiple reentry vehicles.
The GBSD is being built with an upgraded W87-1 reentry vehicle, which will provide “enhanced safety and security compared to the legacy W78, according to a paper published by the National Nuclear Security Administration. Part of the enhancements, according to the paper, include an “insensitive high explosive primary that has been designed and tested with advanced safety features. The paper adds that the new W87-1 warhead, to be fielded by 2030, will “be certified without the need for additional underground nuclear explosive testing.”
“Our first launch will be akin to a regular Minuteman III test vehicle with an unarmed or inert warhead,” Manuel added.
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