The Ground Based Strategic Deterrent and Tailored Deterrence

The shell game, dense pack, warhead fratricide, road mobile ICBMs, it’s all coming back now!

It’s hard not to think of the MX missile and the Midgetman road mobile ICBM and the furore they provoked in the late 1970s and early 1980s when thinking about the debate on the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent, the Pentagon’s preferred option for retaining the land based leg of the strategic nuclear triad.

The United States, like all the major nuclear powers, wants to upgrade its strategic nuclear forces.

Now upgrading existing Minuteman III ICBMs through an incremental life extension programme appears to be the cheaper option, by a good margin, but this is not what the Air Force wants. The GBSD option is pricey, as a good report in the latest edition of Arms Control Today notes

The projected $85 billion cost to design and build a replacement for the Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) system, the figure set by the Defense Department’s top acquisition official in advancing the program, is at the low end of an independent Pentagon estimate that found the price tag could exceed $100 billion, an informed source told Arms Control Today

Incremental modernisation of the Minuteman III, according to a RAND study, is significantly cheaper

But a 2014 report by the RAND Corp. on the future of the ICBM force found that “any new ICBM alternative will very likely cost almost two times—and perhaps even three times—more than incremental modernization of the current Minuteman III system.”
The report said continuing to maintain the Minuteman III through life-extension programs and “gradual upgrades is a relatively inexpensive way to retain current ICBM capabilities.”

Much trades on the retention of “current ICBM capabilities,” to which I return.

A good analysis of all this appears at the Union of Concerned Scientists by Eryn MacDonald. One reason why the GBSD might end up with such a hefty price tag is because the GBSD may well be designed to also be road mobile a la Midgetman

But even though the current GBSD plan abandons the idea of mobile basing, it is not clear whether the Air Force has completely ruled out the possibility of moving to an alternative basing mode at some point. In an email from March of this year, an Air Force spokesperson said that the selected GBSD design “will provide the option for alternative modes of operation in the future.”

It will be interesting to see how the matter of road mobility develops.

The weakness of MacDonald’s analysis, and many others, is that it is conducted with reference to traditional notions of nuclear deterrence. They should not be. So the key point of analysis is; what is the cheapest way to retain nuclear deterrence, understood as a secure second strike capability?

Is it Minuteman III life extension? Is it doing away with the land based leg of the triad altogether?

Strategic thinking is now dominated by concepts of tailored deterrence. United States Strategic Command wants to do more than retain current capabilities. You get a sense of this in an earlier Arms Control Today article on the GBSD

A Feb. 17 story in The Daily Beast cited concerns among some military officials that the Minuteman III lacks the required accuracy to destroy key hardened targets….

…. a second Air Force spokesman said in an email last month that the “specifics regarding the survivability of the Minuteman III weapon system are classified.” The spokesman added that the GBSD program will “address future threats, especially those that may emerge in a post-2030 Anti-Access/Area Denial environment.”

What does tailored deterrence mean in the context of the GBSD? It means an ICBM with a greater throw weight than the Minuteman III, as this would give the GBSD a greater surge capacity to rapidly increase US warhead numbers if required capacity (a responsive nuclear weapons complex is an important part of tailored deterrence), higher accuracy for greater hard target kill capability, RVs to incorporate low yield and multiple yield warheads perhaps even an earth penetrator, extended range for global strike, new RV concepts (could talk more about this but won’t).

My sense is that the GBSD is assessed to be much better for tailored deterrence, the type of deterrence that strategic thinkers argue goes with “the second nuclear age,” than does Minuteman III life extension so therefore is worth the extra cost. Minuteman III life extension retains current deterrence capabilities.

The interesting thing about the GBSD, and similar programmes, is that it might have a favourable consequence. Namely, warhead modernisation through warhead replacement programmes. If one can crack life extension programmes in favour of replacement programmes on the delivery side, it might open the door to moving beyond warhead life extension on the physics package side.

Tailored deterrence implies new strategic capabilities, not enhancing existing ones. This is the framework of analysis that is needed here.

Now the MX and Midgetman furore of yesteryear is of relevance. The problem the Reaganites had was that it was hard to justify their strategic programmes with reference to traditional concepts of deterrence, but this they had to do because of the vagaries of the US political system, and that got them in all sorts of tangles. One way they sought to get out of those tangles was by openly embracing concepts of nuclear warfighting, but this led to a massive peace movement. They had to justify their programmes with reference to old concepts of deterrence, hence the need for shell games, dense pack and the like.

I think it will be hard for the Pentagon, and the nuclear complex, to get everything on their shopping list absent a widespread acceptance of concepts of tailored deterrence. The political and strategic environment, with Russia and China especially, makes this an easier sell now than previously.

There was a time when documentaries were informative sober affairs less given to glamour and overstatement of theses. Check this one out on the politics of the MX missile and basing modes from back in the day. The parallels to the GBSD are striking.