by Jackie Cabasso
The United States military encircles the globe through its operation of 11 Unified Combatant Commands. Composed of forces from two or more armed services, the Unified Commands are headed by four-star generals and admirals who operate under the direct authority of the Secretary of Defense, accountable only to the President. Six of the Commands are responsible for designated regions of the world and four others for various operations. When establishment of the U.S. Northern Command was announced in 2002, the official press release declared, “For the first time, commanders’ areas of operations cover the entire Earth.” The new Space Command was established in 2019. Tying all the Commands together is United States Strategic Command (STRATCOM), at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska.
Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, in 1992 President George H. Bush established STRATCOM, which for the first time brought the planning, targeting, and wartime employment of nuclear forces under the control of a single commander.
Previously limited to nuclear weapons, STRATCOM’s role was expanded, consistent with provisions of the George W. Bush administration’s 2001 Nuclear Posture Review, to encompass all aspects of assessing and responding to nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons worldwide. Nuclear weapons are not segregated either operationally or doctrinally from conventional weapons. This expanded role was not reversed in subsequent Nuclear Posture Reviews in 2010 and 2018 (we’re still waiting for the release of the 2022 NPR).
In describing the transition to a “new” strategic triad, the 2001 Nuclear Posture Review provides a useful tool for understanding how the U.S. plans to carry out its global war-fighting strategy. In one corner of the new triad, new non-nuclear weapons capabilities have been added to the “old” Cold War strategic triad, consisting of submarine-based ballistic missiles, land-based intercontinental missiles, and strategic bombers – still very much there. This category was designated “offensive strike systems.” The other legs of this new triad are “defenses” and a “revitalized defense infrastructure that will provide new capabilities in a timely fashion to meet emerging threats.” These three elements are bound together by “enhanced command and control” and intelligence systems.
As military affairs analyst William Arkin warned at the time, tearing down the firewall that has separated nuclear weapons from other weapons lowers the threshold for U.S. nuclear use.
The three legs of the new strategic triad are designed to work together to enable the United States to project overwhelming military force. Considered in this context, the so-called “defenses” can be recognized as not really intended to defend the United States from a surprise attack. These “layered” systems include both “national” missile defense systems in the form of ground-based interceptors, initially in Alaska and California, and “theater” missile defenses, deployed at foreign bases or on ships at sea. New air-borne missile defense technologies are in development. These missile defenses are intended to work together with the offensive weapons systems, like swords and shields, to protect U.S. troops and bases and other U.S. “strategic assets” around the world.
According to STRATCOM’s official website: “The mission of USSTRATCOM is to deter strategic attack and employ forces, as directed, to guarantee the security of our Nation and our Allies. The command enables Joint Force operations and is the combatant command responsible for Strategic Deterrence, Nuclear Operations, Nuclear Command, Control, and Communications (NC3) Enterprise Operations, Joint Electromagnetic Spectrum Operations, Global Strike, Missile Defense, Analysis and Targeting, and Missile Threat Assessment…. This dynamic command gives national leadership a unified resource for greater understanding of specific threats around the world and the means to respond to those threats rapidly.”
The nature of these interrelated operations brings home the complications of what is referred to as “strategic stability,” the intrinsic relationship between nuclear and conventional weapons. Russia has consistently called for inclusion of strategic stability in nuclear arms control discussions, while the U.S. has until now categorically refused
In 2009, former Soviet President Mikael Gorbachev warned that the pursuit of “military superiority would be an insurmountable obstacle to ridding the world of nuclear weapons. Unless we discuss demilitarization of international politics, the reduction of military budgets, preventing militarization of outer space, talking about a nuclear-free world will be just rhetorical.”
We are living in a time of extraordinary nuclear dangers. With Russia’s illegal war of aggression on Ukraine, which could eventually draw the militaries of the U.S., its NATO allies and Russia into direct conflict, Russia’s repeated threats to use nuclear weapons, and other festering nuclear flashpoints including Taiwan, the Korean Peninsula and South Asia, the danger of nuclear war is as high as it has ever been. The scale and tempo of war games by nuclear-armed states and their allies, including nuclear drills, are increasing. Ongoing missile tests, and frequent close encounters between military forces of nuclear-armed states exacerbate nuclear dangers.
Over the next 30 years, the United States plans to spend roughly $2 Trillion to replace its entire nuclear weapons infrastructure and upgrade or replace its nuclear bombs and warheads and the bombers, missiles and submarines that deliver them. All nine nuclear-armed nations are upgrading their nuclear arsenals.
U.S. plans include:
- A new air-launched cruise missile with long-range standoff capability that will be stealthier, more accurate, longer range, and deployed in the hundreds on a new stealth bomber, the B-2.
- A new land-based Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM), called the “Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent,” with an enhanced W-81-7 warhead, to replace the 400 Minuteman III missiles currently deployed on the Great Plains.
- Twelve new replacement Trident ballistic missile submarines. Trident Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBMs) are undergoing “life-extensions” and the mated W76-1 warhead has been made much more accurate. An entirely new warhead, the W-93, is planned for deployment by 2040.
Raytheon has a piece in all of these weapons systems, and the context in which they are being developed should terrify us. Last February, warning that the danger of nuclear war with Russia or China is “a very real possibility,” Admiral Charles Richard, Head of U.S. Strategic Command, in charge of integrated nuclear and conventional war planning, explained the coercive role of nuclear weapons in U.S. warfighting plans: “We must acknowledge the foundational nature of our nation’s strategic nuclear forces, as they create the ‘maneuver space’ for us to project conventional military power strategically.”
How is this different from Russia’s use of nuclear threats to limit U.S. and NATO military involvement in Ukraine?
Russian President Vladimir Putin, in a 2018 speech, boasted about new “invincible” Russian nuclear weapons, and gave a detailed description, complete with video animations, of an array of new nuclear weapons delivery systems, including a nuclear-powered cruise missile and an underwater drone.
In September 2020, the Pentagon claimed that China plans to double its stockpile of nuclear warheads (from 290) in this decade, including those designed to be carried by ballistic missiles that can reach the U.S.
In February 2021, France announced plans to launch the full-scale development phase of a new program to build France’s third-generation nuclear-powered ballistic-missile submarines. The French Minister for the Armed Forces, Florence Parly described the new nuclear submarine as “a program that fully embodies the ‘long time’ of our defense: the first third-generation SSBN (ballistic missile submarine) will be delivered in 2035, followed by one submarine every 5 years. And these will sail until 2090. In other words, the last sailors who will patrol on board the third generation SSBNs (ballistic missile submarines) are not born yet.” Chilling.
Also in 2021, Prime Minister Boris Johnson released an integrated defense review that calls for increasing the UK’s nuclear stockpile ceiling from the earlier goal of 180 by the mid-2020s to as many as 260—a 44 percent increase. The defense review vaguely justifies the increase in the nuclear warheads cap “in recognition of the evolving security environment” and in response to a “developing range of technological and doctrinal threats.”
All of these developments violate the nuclear disarmament requirements of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which entered into force in 1970.
Finally, I want to offer a cautionary note on our approach to the war economy. We need to always keep in mind that militarism and the military budget are about more than just military spending and guns versus butter. We also need to pay attention to the purposes and interests that militarism serve, and how perpetual war preparations underscore a culture of violence that runs from the top to the bottom of our society.
Jackie Cabasso is the Executive Director of the Western States Legal Foundation and serves as north American coordinator of Mayors for Peace. She was the 2008 recipient of the International Peace Bureau’s Sean MacBride Peace Award. She spent the month of August 2022 attending the 10th Review Conference of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty at United Nations Headquarters in New York City.