Russian bombers over Guam raise questions about America’s credibility
Dr. Danny de Gracia is a political scientist and a former...
HONOLULU, February 19, 2013 – America spent a decade mired in bloody pursuit of a ragtag band of insurgents, terrorists and criminals under the assumption that fourth generation warfare would be the wave of the future. Senior officials routinely opined in defense journals that fighterplanes and strategic bombers were irrelevant and wasteful as “expeditionary commanders” would surely face only lightly armed, poorly trained banana republics as opponents. Some highly esteemed academics even went so far as to imply the Navy and Air Force should be abolished and that America should have an all-infantry force for so-called global “prestige” and power.
Yet in spite of all the intellectual pedantry, the drones and the “transformation” of the military since the year 2000, on Tuesday last week the Russian Air Force with its 1950s era strategic nuclear bombers knocked flat the “high tech, fast, lean and mean” house of cards that our modern defense is so precariously perched upon.
Had Russia’s purportedly backward military been at war with the United States and launched a nuclear first strike against our forward positioned strategic forces in Guam, whatever the platform of Russia’s choosing had been – sub launched SLBM, land based ICBM or standoff air-launched missile – it is arguable that our forces would have been caught unprepared on the ground.
Counterforce Credibility and a Secured Second Strike Capability
Over the last few decades, the United States has operated under the quaint assumption that in the event of a nuclear war, our forces would have more than enough advance warning to disperse and avoid destruction in a first-strike attack. However as the historical examples of the Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor and the terrorist acts on September 11, 2001 demonstrate, even when actionable intelligence of a threat exists the signal-to-noise ratio can be so high that policymakers fail to properly assess threats and act accordingly.
Yet the whole point of national defense is to ensure that no matter the idiosyncrasies or partisan preferences of the elected Congress or presidency, America remains safe and secure because redundant systems are in place to ensure threats are mitigated and enemies are deterred.
If deterrence fails and an attack occurs, the defense system is intended to ensure the survival of the American way of life and the defeat of our enemies. Nonetheless, it was during the early 1970s that experts began to fear that America was vulnerable to a first strike because our counterforce credibility was sorely lacking in several areas.
For starters, during the 1970s our airspace was largely open and unguarded (a problem that remains today, albeit worse so) allowing Soviet bombers such as the Tu-95 which recently buzzed Guam and the Tu-22 Backfire an opportunity in war to roam with impunity against our bases.
The development of the Air Force’s F-15 Eagle as well as the E-3 Sentry AWACS early warning aircraft helped partially ameliorate this problem, but as only a small fraction of the B-52 force was on airborne alert, the majority of our strategic bombers were parked on the ground and susceptible to first-strike by Soviet bombers, submarines and long-range ICBMs. That left two other legs of the nuclear triad – the land based missile force and the sea-based submarine boomer force – to serve as a secured second strike capability against a well-executed surprise attack.
Submarines while stealthy still suffer from the fact that an astute enemy can determine their movements and either strike at a time they are in port or eliminate them through anti-submarine aircraft or attack submarines of their own. There is also remote possibility that they can be cut off from communications in the event of a nuclear war, leaving the land-based ICBM as an important deterrent.
The problem with the 1970s ICBM force was the fact that the LGM-30 Minutemen missiles were antiquated and somewhat inaccurate, thus making them unreliable against hardened Soviet ICBM sites. This prompted the development of the LGM-118 Peacekeeper missile as well as the modernization of all LGM-30s to Minuteman III standard, nevertheless the Peacekeeper was intended to replace the Minuteman. Under President George W. Bush, the LGM-118s were withdrawn from service, leaving only the older (yet upgraded) Minutemen missiles to constitute our land-based ICBM deterrent.
In effect, today we are defending America with the very weapons in 1970 our policymakers were worried needed to be replaced to maintain our edge in a nuclear environment. Our bombers are old, our fighers are old, our ballisitic submarines are old, our ICBMs are old and our conventional forces are worn down by the ongoing Global War On Terror.
If during the 1970s at the peak of America’s readiness we were vulnerable to nuclear attack, how much less credible are our nuclear forces as fiscal challenges, the ongoing war on terror and the Obama Administration’s commitment to nuclear reduction erode our capability? Our Air Force and Navy are no longer in the business of nuclear deterrence as the priority is on anti-terrorism. While the rest of the world has no moral conflict in modernizing their arsenal, our leaders insist on dismantling America’s forces.
According to the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, the Administration believes “Russia and the United States are no longer adversaries and prospects for military confrontation have declined dramatically. The two have increased their cooperation in areas of shared interest, including preventing nuclear terrorism and nuclear proliferation.”
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