With tensions between the United States and Russia steadily increasing over the last two years, nuclear weapons and strategic warfare are creeping back into the mindsets of military leaders, politicians and the public as a whole. The current situation between the world’s two premier nuclear powers suggests the possibility of a new cold war on the horizon. New areas of influence are being established, while simultaneously, attempts are underway to reassert influence and power in regions where a respective power once held tremendous sway. Saber-rattling has become a common practice, and the fielding of new strategic weapons by Russia is receiving tremendous amounts of scrutiny in the United States and Europe. With the possibility of another cold war, also comes the potential for a military confrontation as well. And with the chance of a conventional clash between the US and Russia comes a possibility of a nuclear conflict as well.
With that in mind, this article will examine the current posture of US strategic forces, and provide an overview of weapon systems, doctrines, and issues facing the nuclear forces of both nations. In spite of the limitations and reductions being imposed by the New START Treaty, the US and Russia will each continue to field enough nuclear warheads and launchers to destroy the world for the foreseeable future.
US Strategic Forces
The three arms of the US nuclear triad are air, sea, and land. In order to comply with the terms of New Start, the United States will be reducing the number of warheads it has deployed on ICBMs and bombers in the next few years. While this happens, plans to develop and field new delivery systems are moving ahead. The goal is to have these systems deployed within the next 20-30 years and this goal is achievable, even under current the current budgetary restrictions.
At the moment, the US has 1,600 warheads deployed on ICBMs and ballistic missile submarines. These platforms are referred to as long-range strategic launch vehicles. Bombers are not included in the category. By 2018, the number of warheads will be reduced to 1,550 when New START is fully implemented.
The land-based arm consists of ICBMs, at current 450 Minuteman IIIs. Each bird contains one W87 warhead. The W87 was originally fitted on Peacekeeper missiles. When the Peacekeeper was retired, they were retrofitted for use on Minutemen. The active force is based at Malmstrom AFB, Montana, Minot AFB, North Dakota and FE Warren AFB in Wyoming. The Air Force is upgrading the force with new engines and electronics to keep the missiles in service until the new Ground-based Strategic Deterrent enters service between 2025 and 2030.
The sea-based component of the triad consists of 14 Ohio class ballistic missile submarines. Each boat carries 24 Trident II (D-5) SLBMs. The Ohios are the quietest submarines in existence and because of this fact, are the most survivable arm of the nuclear triad. With the US shift to Asia, Trident submarine basing has been reshuffled in recent years. 9 subs are based in Washington State and patrol the Pacific, while 5 are based at Kings Bay, Georgia and patrol the Atlantic. With tensions with Russia rising it will be interesting to see if any subs are shifted back to the Atlantic to better cover targets in Russia.
The air component is made up B-52 and B-2 Spirit strategic bombers. Unlike the other arms of the triad, the bombers are no longer kept on alert. In 1991, President George H.W. Bush took US bombers off of alert and a year later deactivated the Strategic Air Command. Before he did that, US bombers stood alert at SAC bases across the continent and the world for decades, ensuring that at least some aircraft would survive a surprise Soviet nuclear attack. In contemporary times, in the event of a Russian counterforce attack during peacetime conditions, it is unlikely that many bombers would survive.
The US Air Force recognizes that in the event of a nuclear attack, USTRATCOM’s headquarters at Offutt AFB and the nation’s capital, Washington DC, would be the top two targets on the Russians targeting list. If Offutt and DC are hit, the civilian and military command structures could be neutralized, leaving no one to issue orders to US strategic forces. To deal with this potential problem, two specialized aircraft and their crews are postured on alert 24 hours a day 365 days a year, ready to take to the skies in response to an attack on the United States.
The first aircraft is the E-4B National Airborne Operations Center, known as Nightwatch in Air Force circles. Nightwatch is a heavily modified Boeing 747 designed to serve as a survivable command post for the president and his advisers should an attack come. From the late 70s until the early 90s, Nightwatch was based at Andrews AFB outside of Washington DC. In the 1990s, President Clinton ordered the aircraft to be kept at Offutt unless needed.
The second aircraft is the E-6 Mercury. Primarily used as the main TACAMO platform for communications with ballistic missile submarines in the event of war, the E-6 also serves as USTRATCOM’s primary airborne command post. Before 1997, this role was filled by the Looking Glass aircraft, an EC-135 for decades. In 1997 the E-6 Mercury was given the Looking Glass role. In the event that USTRATCOM headquarters is destroyed, Looking Glass will take command of and issue orders to strategic forces.
*Russian Strategic Forces will be published on Saturday*