June 1, 2009  

Unmanned and nuclear

Is America ready for a UAV bomber?

In the wake of the August 2007 incident in which six air-launched cruise missiles armed with nuclear warheads were mistakenly flown from Minot Air Force Base, N.D., to Barksdale Air Force Base, La., and the August 2006 incident — acknowledged in March 2008 — that saw top-secret nuclear fuses mistakenly shipped to Taiwan as battery packs for UH-1 Huey helicopters, Defense Secretary Robert Gates fired Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. T. Michael Moseley. Gates also formed a task force to study nuclear weapons management, which led to former Defense Secretary James Schlesinger’s publication of the “Report of the Secretary of Defense Task Force on Nuclear Weapons Management: The Air Force Nuclear Mission.” The report, along with other recent Pentagon publications, played a role in the creation of Global Strike Command — a major command dedicated to the nuclear mission.

The mistakes had a positive outcome in that they led to the leadership’s re-examination of the entire nuclear enterprise, which served to stimulate a renaissance of thought on nuclear deterrence and the role of nuclear weapons in national security policy. As part of that renaissance, this article examines the delivery systems upon which the nuclear arsenal relies, with a focus on nuclear-capable bombers.

One issue the Schlesinger report and others like it do not discuss is the possible development of a nuclear-dedicated unmanned combat aerial vehicle (ND-UCAV) as a replacement for nuclear-capable bombers. Yet the Air Force should seriously consider replacing its nuclear-capable bombers with a ND-UCAV based on the X-47B UCAV demonstrator, which the Navy began funding in 2007. While Navy requirements focus on carrier-based ISR operations, the Air Force could take advantage of the more than $800 million previously invested in the Joint Unmanned Combat Air Systems (J-UCAS) program and the $635 million currently dedicated to X-47B development and rapidly develop a ND-UVAC capable of penetrating defended air space with a small nuclear weapons payload.

To understand why the ND-UCAV is an attractive option for the future, a brief look at the current condition of the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) and bomber legs of the nuclear triad illustrates the serious need for modernization. Three points highlight the threat to their continued credibility.

First, today’s entire Air Force bomber fleet of B-52Hs, B1-Bs and B-2s, not just nuclear-capable bombers, is 90 percent smaller than it was at its peak in 1959, when Strategic Air Command (SAC) consisted of 1,366 B-47s and 488 B-52s. Placed within a proper context, the dramatic reduction in the bomber fleet diminishes a very visible and psychologically significant element of a credible deterrent that cannot be achieved with unseen ballistic-missile submarines or ICBMs. Of the current bombers in service, all three airframes are aging and in need of costly repair and upgrades. With the entire fleet of 67 B1-Bs dedicated to conventional operations, as well as a majority of the remaining 62 B-52Hs and 20 B-2s primarily dedicated to conventional operations, the nuclear bomber fleet has dwindled to a record low.

Second, down from a 1969 peak of 1,054, the nation’s 450 remaining ICBMs are in a similar condition and, like the bomber fleet, aging rapidly even as they undergo periodic maintenance and upgrades through a number of life extension programs. Additionally, designed in the mid-1960s and fielded between the late 1960s and early 1970s, the nation’s Minuteman IIIs are housed in underground silos, which are in need of replacement. Silo replacement is cost-prohibitive and may lead to further reductions in ICBM numbers or, as some internal debate suggests, movement of Minuteman IIIs above ground.

Third, with planning for the Next-Generation Bomber (NGB) still in its early stages within the Pentagon, the current fleet of B-52Hs will be approaching 60 before the NGB is expected to enter service in about 2018. The high development costs, underwhelming performance and high maintenance costs of the B1-B are a primary reason the B-52H remained in service after a smaller-than-expected number of B1-Bs were procured. A second attempt at replacing the B-52H led to the B-2, which cost $44 billion to develop and build 21 aircraft, making the B-2 the most expensive aircraft ever built. Even if the NGB can be developed for half the cost of the B-2, each aircraft will cost taxpayers more than $1 billion. In a constrained fiscal budget, procuring an expensive weapons system may prove to be a difficult proposition. Thus, there may be an opportunity to replace an aging bomber fleet with an advanced weapons system that is affordable — $150 million per aircraft — and capable of providing a credible air breathing nuclear deterrent. The ND-UCAV can meet the nation’s 21st century nuclear deterrence requirements at an affordable price.

Roadblocks for the ND-UCAV

There are, however, four initial difficulties facing the development of the ND-UCAV. First, and most important, President Barack Obama has articulated his foreign policy agenda, which calls for continued reductions in the nuclear arsenal. Obama’s agenda suggests that expenditures related to the nuclear enterprise will come under increasing scrutiny, making it difficult to modernize the nuclear arsenal and develop advanced delivery systems. This is a particular concern for the nuclear complex because the president is actively seeking to implement Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which calls for eventual nuclear disarmament. Thus, for example, designing a modern nuclear warhead that replaces those originally designed and built in the 1960s or designing a bomber, such as an ND-UCAV, to replace those originally designed and built in the 1950s may be viewed as creating a “new” nuclear capability rather than as a modernization of the existing arsenal. Such a move could be considered a violation of the NPT by some.

Released just days after taking office, the president’s agenda states: “Obama and [Vice President Joe] Biden will set a goal of a world without nuclear weapons, and pursue it. Obama and Biden will always maintain a strong deterrent as long as nuclear weapons exist. But they will take several steps down the long road toward eliminating nuclear weapons. They will stop the development of new nuclear weapons; work with Russia to take U.S. and Russian ballistic missiles off hair trigger alert; seek dramatic reductions in U.S. and Russian stockpiles of nuclear weapons and material; and set a goal to expand the U.S.-Russian ban on intermediate-range missiles so that the agreement is global.”

Reality, however, has shown that lofty ideals rarely come to fruition. Ronald Reagan, an ardent supporter of denuclearization and the elimination of strategic nuclear weapons, discovered upon assuming the presidency that strategic reality not only required the U.S. to maintain a nuclear arsenal, but that the country needed to replace aging nuclear-capable bombers. It was because of the threat posed by the Soviet Union that Reagan restarted the B-1 program and, in 1981, supported development of the B-2. Despite Reagan’s long-held belief that nuclear weapons must be eliminated, reality proved quite different. The same is likely to be the case for the current president.

Second, some suggest that placing nuclear weapons on an unmanned system — one that does not fly point to point, such as an ICBM — places undue confidence in an aircraft that does not have the capability to adapt to unexpected circumstances. Detractors argue that a UCAV is limited by its programming, where a pilot would have the ability to adapt to an evolving situation. This has long been a complaint by opponents of unmanned aerial systems, and it will not disappear anytime soon.

Third, similar to the second critique, detractors suggest that there is a fundamental advantage to manned aviation that cannot be replicated in a UCAV. Many aviators, in particular, believe that a “man in the loop” should remain an integral part of the nuclear mission because of the psychological perception that there is a higher degree of accountability and moral certainty with a manned bomber. These critics do not view a “man on the loop,” as is the case with all unmanned aerial systems, as sufficient.

Fourth, the difficult circumstances facing the nuclear weapons complex are exacerbated by the perception that terrorism is the gravest threat facing the U.S. While terrorism is the most visible threat facing the nation, neither al-Qaida nor any of its affiliates threatens the sovereignty of the country, which cannot be said of America’s near-peer competitors. It is because of the U.S.’ conventional and nuclear capabilities that the nation’s adversaries choose not to fight or resort to terrorism. Developing the ND-UCAV would assist the country in maintaining that dominance, which should be the preferred state of affairs.

While each of these concerns has some merit, they are not insurmountable obstacles. As with the development of every weapons system, there are costs and benefits that must be weighed. In the case of the ND-UCAV, potential benefits exceed potential costs.

Maintaining a credible nuclear deterrent

Contrary to the specific concerns of potential detractors, there are several broader reasons why the ND-UCAV could prove a valuable asset as the nation faces an ever-changing strategic environment. The implications of the ND-UCAV go well beyond the development of an unmanned weapons system. Rather than seeking to eliminate nuclear weapons, the development and procurement of a safer and more reliable arsenal is a step in the right direction. In addition to developing the ND-UCAV, development of the Reliable Replacement Warhead could address some of the safety concerns UCAV detractors voice when suggesting that a UCAV crash could allow a nuclear weapon to fall into the hands of an adversary — such as al-Qaida.

According to the Air Force White Paper on Long Range Strike (1999), the U.S. was in peril of losing its ability to penetrate defended airspace with long-range strike aircraft more than a decade ago. Developments in anti-aircraft capabilities since the study was produced exacerbate this weakness in American long-range strike capabilities while countries such as China, Russia and Iran focused their weapons development efforts on denying the U.S. access to their airspace because it is more cost-effective than challenging the U.S. in the air. Of the current bomber fleet, only the 20 B-2s in service can penetrate modern anti-aircraft defenses. This limited ability to penetrate advanced air defenses diminishes the psychological impact of, for example, moving nuclear capable bombers forward during a crisis. Fielding a bomber, such as the ND-UCAV, with improved penetration capabilities could heighten the perceived threat and lead to an adversary backing down from a threatening posture.

The Air Force has touted the Next Generation Bomber as an intermediate solution to current deficiencies, but the NGB is, without question, not the Air Force’s preferred long-range strike solution. There is a clear view among some bomber proponents that the hypersonic bomber is the solution to current long-range strike deficiencies, if the technology is given the time needed to mature. The desire for a hypersonic bomber has created a reluctance among Air Force leaders to invest precious resources in a bomber that is perceived as a quick fix, as is the case with the NGB.

These difficulties present a substantial obstacle for the Air Force. Without dramatic improvements in the Air Force’s ability to penetrate defended airspace, the bomber leg of the nuclear triad will decline in credibility, which is not easily re-established. Substantial investments in the triad need to be made if the U.S. intends to maintain a credible nuclear deterrence in the years ahead. The nation’s adversaries are paying careful attention to the ongoing debate within this country. The Defense Science Board, the National Nuclear Security Administration, the Air Force, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Strategic Command commander Gen. Kevin Chilton are, on the one hand, arguing for nuclear modernization. On the other hand, the Arms Control Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Physical Society, the Center for Strategic and International Studies and others are calling for the U.S. to move toward nuclear disarmament. The ND-UCAV is a cost-effective way to maintain credibility without expanding capability.

In recent years, the Air Force has not persuasively articulated an acquisitions strategy that satisfies the need for new fighters and a new bomber. Thus, the Senate and House Armed Services Committees have proven reluctant to support Air Force funding requests for all of these programs, which may make the procurement of an ND-UCAV more difficult despite the benefits of such an acquisition.

The news is not all bad, however. As previously noted, replacing aging bombers with the ND-UCAV instead of the Next Generation Bomber will reduce acquisition costs from about $1 billion to $150 million per aircraft while meeting the need for a nuclear long-range strike capability. With more than five years and $1.4 billion already invested in the J-UCAS and N-UCAV programs, the ND-UCAV should be capable of restoring credibility to the bomber leg of the nuclear mission long before the 2018 timeframe planned for the NGB.

To highlight the benefits of the ND-UCAV:

• The ND-UCAV can provide the Air Force with an aircraft capable of delivering two B-61 thermonuclear gravity bombs at a cost well below the $1 billion of the 2018 bomber.

• The ND-UCAV can be a stealth aircraft capable of penetrating defended airspace.

• The ND-UCAV is less than half the size of the B-52H and requires a much shorter runway for takeoff and landing, allowing for greater dispersal and force realignment. Thus, in a crisis situation, the ND-UCAV can be moved forward — to a greater number of locations — in order to demonstrate American resolve.

• Unlike the ICBM, the ND-UCAV is recallable before weapons release.

• The ND-UCAV can change course should a target be mobile. It can also loiter should the position of a mobile target be lost or compromised.

• The ND-UCAV can be flown into contaminated areas where a human pilot might succumb to high levels of radiation.

There can be little doubt that the development of the ND-UCAV deserves further attention. As UAS technology continues to mature, there will be fewer and fewer technical obstacles that stand in the way of expanding the role of the UAS in warfare. If the Air Force embraces change that by many accounts is inevitable, a renaissance of aviation may be in store. If, however, it does not, Congress, a constrained fiscal environment and the demands of the American people may once again place the Air Force in a difficult position. Military aviators have a long tradition of heroism that is noteworthy. And, it should not be forgotten that while the ND-UCAV will remove the aviator from the cockpit, it does not remove the airman from the fight. Any UAS is only as capable as its designers. Like manned bombers, its limits are man-made. Keeping its strengths and weaknesses in perspective may give the ND-UCAV the fighting chance it deserves.

Adam B. Lowther is research professor at the Air Force Research Institute at Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala. He is the author of “Americans and Asymmetric Conflict: Lebanon, Somalia and Afghanistan.” The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Air Force or Defense Department.