USAF plans to expand nuclear bomber bases

Hans M. Christensen

The U.S. Air Force is working to expand the number of strategic bomber bases that can store nuclear weapons from two today to five by the 2030s. The plan will also significantly expand the number of bomber bases that store nuclear cruise missiles from one base today to all five bomber bases.

The expansion is the result of a decision to replace the non-nuclear B-1B bombers at Ellsworth AFB and Dyess AFB with the nuclear B-21 bomber over the next decade-and-a-half and also reinstate nuclear weapons storage capability at Barksdale AFB. The Air Force previously planned for the B-21 to replace the B-2A no later than 2032 and the B-1Bs no later than 2036

The expansion is not expected to increase the total number of nuclear weapons assigned to the bomber force, but to broaden the infrastructure to “accommodate mission growth,” Air Force Global Strike Command Commander General Timothy Ray told Congress last year.

The Air Force announced in May 2018 that the B-21 would replace the B-1B and B-2A bombers and be deployed at Ellsworth AFB, Dyess AFB, and Whiteman AFB.

Since the B-1B was replaced in the nuclear war plan by the B-2A in 1997 and all B-1B bombers were denuclearized in 2011, the effect of the B-21 bomber program is that nuclear bomber operations will increase from the three bases today to five bases in the future. The modernization plan also appears to significantly expand the location of nuclear cruise missiles from one base today (Minot AFB) to all five bomber bases by the late-2030s. The Long Range Stand Off Weapon (LRSO) is a nuclear-armed, air-launched cruise missile scheduled to begin entering the arsenal in 2030.

A key element of the base upgrades to operate the B-21 involves the construction of a new nuclear weapons storage facility at each base: a Weapons Generation Facility (WGF). The new facility is different than the Weapons Storage Areas (WSAs) that the Air Force built during the Cold War as it will integrate maintenance and storage mission sets into the same facility. The Air Force says the WGF will be “unique to the B-21 mission” and designed to provide a “safer and more secure location for the storage of Air Force nuclear munitions.” A WGF is also under construction at F.E. Warren AFB for storage of ICBM warheads.

The B-21 bomber program is expected to increase the overall size of the U.S. strategic bomber force. The Air Force currently operates about 158 bombers (62 B-1B, 20 B-2A, and 76 B-52H) and has long said it plans to procure at least 100 B-21 bombers. That number now appears to be at least 145, which will increase the overall bomber force by 62 bombers to about 220. There are currently nine bomber squadrons, a number the Air Force wants to increase to 14 (each base has more than one squadron).

During an interview in April, General Ray reportedly said the 220 number was a “minimum, not a ceiling” and added: “We as the Air Force now believe it’s over 220.” Whether Congress will agree to pay for that many B-21s remains to be seen.

The fielding of large numbers of nuclear-capable B-21 bombers has implications for the future development of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Under the New START treaty, the United States has declared it will deploy no more than 60 nuclear bombers. Although the treaty will lapse in 2026 (after a five-year maximum extension), it serves as the baseline for long-term nuclear force structure planning.

Unless the Air Force limits the number of nuclear-equipped B-21 bombers to the number of B-2As operated today, the number of nuclear bombers would begin to exceed the 60 deployed nuclear bomber pledge by 2028 (assuming an annual production of nine aircraft and two-year delay in deployment of the first nuclear unit). By 2035, the number of deployed nuclear bombers could double compared with today.

It is difficult to imagine a military justification for such an increase in the number of nuclear bombers — even without New START. One would hope that the number of nuclear B-21s will be limited to well below the total number. Although the New START treaty would have expired before this becomes a legal issue, it would now send the wrong message to other nuclear-armed states about U.S. long-term intentions, deepen suspicion and “Great Power Competition,” and could complicate future arms control talks.

In the short term, the incoming Biden administration should commit the United States to not increase the number of nuclear bombers beyond those planned under the New START treaty, and it should urge Russia to make a similar declaration about the size of its nuclear bomber force.

Hans M. Kristensen is director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists. His article is edited from Federation of American Scientists, November 17, 2020, and was reprinted in PeaceMeal, November/December 2020.

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

Trump’s COVID infection shows why it’s time to retire the nuclear football

Tom Z. Collina

President John Kennedy took powerful pain medications. President Richard Nixon was a heavy drinker. President Ronald Reagan had dementia. And now President Donald Trump has had the coronavirus. These conditions can significantly impair one’s ability to think clearly. And yet, as president, each had — or, in Trump’s case, still has — the unilateral authority to launch U.S. nuclear weapons within minutes.

President Trump is followed 24/7 by a military aide that carries the “football,” the briefcase that holds all he would need to order the immediate launch of up to 1,000 nuclear weapons, more than enough megatonnage to blow the world back into the stone age. He does not need the approval of Congress or the secretary of defense. Shockingly, there are no checks and balances on this ultimate executive power.

President Trump took the nuclear football with him to Walter Reed Medical Center, where he received treatment for COVID-19. According to Trump’s doctor, the president’s blood oxygen levels had dipped. And this, according to independent health experts, can impair decision-making ability. He was taking dexamethasone, which can cause mood swings and “frank psychotic manifestations.” Yet as far as we know, at no point did the president transfer his powers to the vice president, as allowed under the 25th Amendment.

To state the obvious, we should not entrust nuclear launch authority to someone who is not fully lucid. (Reagan transferred authority temporarily before planned surgery, as did President George W. Bush before a medical procedure that required his sedation.) A nuclear crisis can happen at any time, including at the worst possible time. If such a crisis takes place when a president’s thinking is compromised for any reason, the results could be catastrophic.

For example, imagine that the president is alerted to an incoming nuclear missile attack. He would have just minutes to decide what to do before the attack, if real, would land. Even in the best of circumstances there would be tremendous pressure to launch land-based ballistic missiles (which are highly vulnerable) immediately. He would need all of his wits about him to understand that he should not launch these weapons. Why? Because any alert of a nuclear attack is likely to be a false alarm, and once launched, our missiles cannot be recalled. If the president orders an attack in response to a false alarm, he would have started nuclear war by mistake.

If the president or his advisors have reason to believe that Trump’s thinking may be compromised, nuclear launch authority should be transferred to the vice president, Mike Pence. If Pence also gets COVID, the football could then be passed to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, President Pro Tempore of the Senate Chuck Grassley, and the secretaries of State, Treasury and Defense, in that order.

But kicking the football down the line does not solve the problem — and in fact shows why the system is broken. Does anyone really believe that the president pro tem of the Senate or the Treasury Secretary has spent much time preparing for nuclear war? And even if they had prepared, the central dilemma remains: All humans are imperfect, and we should not trust the fate of the world to any one person.

The whole concept of giving the president unilateral nuclear authority is built on the false assumption that Russia might launch a surprise first strike. In fact, Russia has never seriously considered a first strike against the United States for a simple reason: It would be national suicide. Both sides have to assume that an attack would provoke an unacceptable nuclear retaliation. Both nations, and much of the rest of the globe, would be obliterated. Starting such a war would be insanity.

Yet by facilitating a quick launch, we are making it more likely that the president will blunder into Armageddon. In a crisis, we should be seeking to give the president more decision time, not less. Maintaining an effective deterrent does not require us to rush into a nuclear war. We have hundreds of nuclear weapons deployed on submarines at sea that would survive any attack. So, rather than argue about who should have the football, let’s make the process safer and more democratic.

The Constitution gives the power to declare war to Congress, not the president. Thus, a presidential decision to initiate the use of nuclear weapons — the ultimate war declaration — would be unconstitutional. The next president can rectify this situation by declaring that he would share the authority to start nuclear war with Congress. He could also state that the sole purpose of U.S. nuclear weapons is to deter their use by others. Vice President Joe Biden has declared his support for such a “sole purpose” policy, which is essentially the same as a commitment to not use nuclear weapons first.

It is time to retire the nuclear football. The only thing standing between us and nuclear holocaust is one man with COVID on heavy meds. That is the plan? Ending sole authority is better than entrusting it to any individual.

In a vibrant democracy, no one person should have the unchecked power to destroy the world.

– Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, October 6, 2020
PeaceMeal, November/December 2020

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)