by Richard Krushnic
The enormously dangerous and expensive upgrading of the US nuclear triad is moving full steam ahead under the Trump Administration. The speed with which contracts are being awarded and work begun on new weapons systems will make it harder for any future Administration to turn around our nuclear policy.
The Massachusetts-based Raytheon Company secured a contract in April to engineer and manufacture the nuclear long-range standoff missile (LRSO), which will be the air-launched leg of the new nuclear triad.
US nuclear weapons strategy is primarily based on a triad of forces: the ground-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) stored in deep silos, the submarine-launched Trident missiles, and the air-launched bombs carried by B-52 bombers. The existing triad represents tremendous overkill and the upgrade will make it more accurate, faster, and more difficult for an enemy to differentiate between incoming nuclear and conventional warheads. Rather than being a deterrent, as all Administrations—both Republican and Democratic—have claimed, these new-gen nuclear weapons are designed for first-use, not just deterrence, making an enemy retaliatory launch much more likely if it thinks there has been a U.S. launch.
Raytheon joins other major “defense” contractors who will build different legs of the new triad. Northrop Grumman won a bidding war last December to construct the land-based leg of the triad – the ground-based strategic deterrent (GBSD) – and is expected to be awarded an $80 billion contract shortly. General Dynamics’s subsidiary Electric Boat in Groton, Connecticut will be constructing the new Columbia-class nuclear submarine for the new nuclear sub missiles, which will replace the Trident subs. Construction could begin in late 2020.
Two years were left on the exploratory pre-engineering phase contracts to the Raytheon and Lockheed competitors, but in its zeal to complete the new generation of nuclear weapons, the Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center (AFNWC) cut out the competition and awarded the prize to Raytheon. Now AFNWC will negotiate the engineering the manufacturing development phase with Raytheon, and work will begin as soon as possible.
While the nuclear LRSO may be carried by another plane later on, it will initially be deployed on the aging B-52s. Aviation Week and Space Technology (May 4-17, 2020) informs us that the nuclear LRSO will replace the 375 existing Boeing nuclear AGM-86Bs. The article, “Raytheon’s LRSO Prize completes nuclear modernization supplier roles,” notes that the AGM-86Bs have been in service since 1982 and are due to be retired in 2030. It seems they won’t have to wait so long for retirement.
The article warns that the LRSO could be at risk if Joe Biden wins the November election, because he could become the first president to declare a “no first use” of nuclear weapons policy. Unless a nuclear missile sub is close to its target—unlikely–aircraft that get closer in could get nuclear warheads to their targets more quickly, and certainly more quickly than the GBSDs launched from the ground in the US. Hence, the LRSO is thought of as a potential first-use nuke. A “no first use” policy could make the LRSO expendable in some nuclear warfare planners’ eyes. Given Raytheon’s unsurpassed lobbyists, and its new heft as a giant conglomerate with 300,000 employees around the world with its April 2020 merger with United Technologies, there is little reason to think that Biden’s “no first use” leanings would scuttle the missile, even if he ostensibly supports a “no first use” policy.
A number of former top Pentagon and Congressional Armed Services Committee leaders, including, for example, former Secretary of Defense William Perry and former Senate Armed Services Chairman Sam Nunn, consider the LRSO to be a weapon that makes nuclear war much more likely. It is designed to find its target with pinpoint accuracy, even when an enemy renders its GPS homing inoperable, and it’s designed to disable and/or evade complex, integrated defense systems. Launched from patrolling aircraft not that far from targets, it would give an enemy only 10-15 minutes to launch a counter strike. Furthermore, upon detection of the incoming missile, the targeted enemy would not know if it was nuclear or conventionally armed, unlike the GBSD warheads, which are all nuclear.
The Air Force has not stated whether the LRSO will be subsonic, supersonic, or hypersonic; but we know that part of the $7 billion a year of Raytheon’s secret work, and the secret work of other firms, is precisely the development of hypersonic missiles. In the 23 previous incidents where the U.S or Russia thought the other side had launched nuclear missiles, there was a period of 30-45 minutes to seek verification and contemplate response. A hypersonic LRSO would give an enemy no more than 5 minutes to launch a counter attack, eliminating any possibility for careful thought or verification, and making automatic nuclear response much more likely. At any speed, the LRSO is a seriously destabilizing first-strike nuclear weapon that makes nuclear war much more likely, and a hypersonic LRSO is terrifyingly so.
—Richard Krushnic is a long-time researcher of military production and imperial U.S. foreign policy and overt covert warfare. He is also a professional in public financing of community economic development in the U.S. and Latin America.