Moscow and Beijing may seize strategic initiative from Washington

An accident happened in the US Armed Forces on May 5, 2021

Moscow and Beijing may seize strategic initiative from Washington

The planned test launch of the American Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile, scheduled for this day, did not take place. The rocket was to be launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The US Air Force reported that the missile’s launch was interrupted on the ground prior to launch and is under investigation. The US Air Force Global Strike Command is considering postponing the launch.

The May 5 incident is an unpleasant situation for the American military, because we are talking about strategic nuclear deterrence, the technical state of the United States nuclear triad and the potential ability to deliver a nuclear strike against a potential adversary.

It should be noted that on May 6, 2021, the US Audit Office, the audit, evaluation, and analytical and investigative body of the US Congress, published an unclassified part of the report entitled “Nuclear Triad. The Department of Defense and the Department of Energy face challenges that pose risks to US containment efforts”. The report itself was prepared in June 2020.

According to this document, at present, the US nuclear triad consists of three components: ground – in the form of 450 intercontinental ballistic missiles LGM-30G Minuteman III (of which 400 are deployed), sea – in the form of 240 submarine-launched ballistic missiles deployed on strategic nuclear submarines boats of the Ohio class, air – in the form of 20 strategic bombers B-2A Spirit and 46 strategic bombers B-52H Stratofortress (of which 40 B-52H deployed).

Restrictions on the deployment of nuclear warheads and delivery vehicles are related to the framework of the Treaty between the Russian Federation and the United States of America on Measures to Further Reduce and Limit Strategic Offensive Arms (START-3), extended until February 5, 2026.

The U.S. Department of Defense estimates that upgrading the nuclear triad will cost approximately $280-350 billion between fiscal 2019-2041. In this case, we are talking about 2019 dollars. These projected costs include efforts to modernize and replace obsolete aircraft, submarines, and sea and land-based missiles that make up the three arms of the nuclear triad, as well as many of the elements of the nuclear command, control and communications system that control these systems.

Let’s walk through the weapons systems of the US strategic nuclear forces. The United States has 454 launchers with 400 deployed Minuteman III ICBMs. This weapon is in constant combat readiness, can be launched within a few minutes and is capable of hitting intended targets within 30 minutes after launch. In addition, launch teams on specialized aircraft can remotely launch the Minuteman III if launch control centers are not available. As a result, they are considered the most responsive part of the nuclear triad.

Intercontinental ballistic missiles LGM-30G Minuteman III have been in service since 1970-1977 and were supposed to have a 10-year service life. But since then, their service life has been extended several times. The US Air Force plans to maintain Minuteman III until 2030 and gradually reduce the number of missiles in service until they are expected to be completely phased out in 2036.

The United States has 14 Ohio-class strategic nuclear ballistic missile submarines. Each submarine has 24 rocket launchers, but only 20 of them are used to house Trident II D5 missiles. This deployment structure was adopted in accordance with START III. The US Navy began using Ohio-class submarines in 1981 with a planned service life of 30 years. In 1998, the Department of Defense decided to extend the life of the Ohio class submarines to 42 years, more than any previous class of submarines. The US Navy plans to decommission the first Ohio-class submarine in 2027, and then decommission one submarine per year until 2041.

The United States has 66 nuclear-armed heavy bombers in the air component of the nuclear triad. We are talking about 20 B-2A Spirit bombers and 46 B-52H Stratofortress bombers. The Air Force began operating the B-2A Spirit in 1997 and plans to support the bomber in the 2030s. According to other sources, the service life of these combat vehicles will expire in 2032.

As a nuclear weapon, the B-2A Spirit will use the B61-12 bomb, which will replace the existing B61-3, B61-4, B61-7 and B61-10 nuclear bombs. Option B61-11 will be retained. The United States Air Force began operating the B-52H strategic bomber in 1961 with an initial planned service life of 20 years. However, it is planned to keep it in operation until at least 2050.

The B-52H uses air-launched cruise missiles (ALCMs) equipped with the W80-1 nuclear warhead to strike targets from a distance. The Air Force began operating the ALCM in 1982. The original planned life of the ALCM was 10 years. The Air Force has extended the life of the ALCM missiles and plans to keep them in service until at least 2030. The Air Force intends to replace the ALCM with a delivery system and warhead, known respectively as the Long Range Standoff missile (LRSO) and the W80-4.

Excluding the B-2A Spirit bomber, the US strategic nuclear forces are currently armed with systems that have been in operation since the Cold War. At the same time, service life of many weapons is significantly extended. The most striking example: the strategic bomber B-52H Stratofortress in 2050 will be in service for about 90 years.

If we talk about the strategic bomber B-2A Spirit, then it can only use free-fall nuclear bombs. Thus, in a military conflict with an enemy with a developed air defense system, he is simply useless. In this case, the same old B-52H has a much greater combat potential, because capable of striking with cruise missiles with nuclear warheads, without entering the enemy’s air defense zone.

The American military leaders know the real level of the technical state of the US nuclear triad. In a recent speech to the US Senate Armed Services Committee, US Strategic Command Chief Admiral Charles Richard said:

“We are at a point where lifecycle constraints and the cumulative consequences of underinvesting in our nuclear deterrent and support infrastructure against an expanding threat leave me no operating headroom. Our nation simply cannot try to endlessly extend the life of the weapons systems left over from the Cold War and successfully implement the strategy”.

Of course, the US Armed Forces have a program to modernize their strategic nuclear forces. It was outlined in the 2018 U.S. Nuclear Posture Review. However, this was still under President Donald Trump.

The new American administration has not yet made a final decision, in particular, on the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) program, which involves replacing the Minuteman III ICBMs in service with new missiles. The initial operational readiness of the first GBSD ICBMs is scheduled for 2029.

It is believed that this program is very expensive: starting from development, the cost of its life cycle until 2075 is estimated at about $264 billion. As an alternative, a proposal is being put forward to modernize the Minuteman III missiles and extend their service life until 2050.

The 14 Ohio-class strategic nuclear submarines are to be replaced by 12 Columbia-class submarines. All of them should be completed by 2042. The first nuclear deterrent patrol of the lead boat of this series is scheduled for October 2030. The total cost of the project is estimated at approximately $128 billion, that is, each nuclear submarine will cost an average of $10.67 billion, which is almost catching up with the cost of an aircraft carrier.

The first flight of the B-21 Rader strategic bomber, which replaces the B-2A and B-52H, is expected in mid-2022. It was previously expected in December 2021. The estimated cost of one combat vehicle at the moment is $ 550 million. American experts believe that the B-21 Rader bomber will enter service no earlier than the second half of the 2020s. Pentagon officials are suggesting an order of 150 aircraft.

An important detail. Both the GBSD program and the B-21 Rader are handled by the same American company, Northrop Grumman. It turns out that the modernization of both the ground and air components of the US nuclear triad depends on the work of this company. The prospect of a new strategic bomber, a new intercontinental ballistic missile, and a strategic nuclear submarine in service with the US Armed Forces – in 5-10 years. And a complete renewal of the United States’ nuclear triad is potentially possible in about 20 years.

In the Russian strategic nuclear forces, already in 2021, the share of modern weapons and equipment will exceed 88 percent. The ground component of the Russian nuclear triad (Strategic Missile Forces) will be fully renewed in 2024, and the naval component by 2027.

Thus, if we take the factor of modernization of the US strategic nuclear forces, then both Russia and China have a convenient period of time of about 10-20 years for internal growth and geopolitical transformations in the conditional near abroad. If we take the factor of the potential deployment of American shorter and medium-range missiles in the Asia-Pacific region and Europe, then this period of time is reduced to about 4-6 years. And we must use this convenient time to our advantage.

Alexander Vladimirov, RusStrat


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