This week’s Republican National Convention has reminded me again that knowing your nuclear triad is important. Some of the malcontentedness after last month’s Brexit referendum is a reminder that the Scottish Nationalists don’t like nuclear weapons, triad or not. Earlier this month, Congressman Adam Smith, ranking member of the House Armed Service Committee, wants new thinking on nuclear weapons, including “downsizing” its ambitions for recapitalization. One almost wholly new thought would be getting the land-based missiles on the road, to increase their deterrent effect and defensibility, while decreasing the cost of replacing the whole force.
Lest start with the bombers and their cruise missiles. For Breaking Defense, Constance Baroudos and Peter Huessy wrote recently on why they believe that a new, stealthy, nuclear-armed cruise missile is “crucial to nuclear deterrence.” I’m less convinced about the importance of this Long Range Stand-Off (LRSO) weapon, which is so far supported in the Congress. One of the problems with air-breathing bombers, at least in the US Air Force, is that they’re generally concentrated on just five fixed bases. An alternative is dispersing long-range aircraft with long-range missiles onto many bases—with concomitantly higher logistics costs—for far greater survivability on the ground. The USAF doesn’t do that, at least not yet.
There’s a similar problem with the submarine-based missiles. At sea, the entire fleet represents just fourteen aim-points, but those are extremely hard to find and target. For the United States or the United Kingdom (or France for that matter), the ships in port are but one or two aim-points. If Nicola Sturgeon has her way, the UK may need to move that aim-point to Devonshire or Cornwall. Russia and China have similar problems. This is perhaps the real reason that the Chinese government fulminates so much about ridiculous claims to the South China Sea: Beijing may want to build a defensible undersea bastion there for ballistic missile submarines.