Saturday, December 21, 2013

In Defense of the Strategic Bomber

With Robert Farley calling for an end to the Air Force (and with it, a reliance solely on submarines for nuclear deterrence), Air Force Lt. Col. Thomas Kirkham has a very timely post at The Diplomat explaining the unique value of strategic bombers in the nuclear triad.  It is well worth reading the entire post, but here is a highlight:

To the extent that an attack against an adversary is a function of politics, the military tools employed to support it must be responsive to the president and his need for flexible attack options. Strategic bombers can fly airborne alert, ready to proceed to any target at a moment’s notice, or deploy forward as a coercive measure as the president seeks to deescalate a conflict, which has occurred twice in East Asia during 2013. Although SSBNs and ICBMs are also responsive, their application in a crisis is very limited and offers the president very few options in an escalation/de-escalation scenario.
is exceedingly difficult.
.  .  .
 The final characteristic of the bomber force that makes it the nation’s single best nuclear weapons delivery platform is its ability to signal adversaries of American intent, a particularly important characteristic in the current dispute with China. For deterrence to be effective, it is imperative that a nation be able to send a clear message to the country that is about to be on the receiving end of an American attack. Nothing demonstrates American resolve better than putting fully loaded strategic bombers on alert or deploying them to a forward base as the spy satellites of a target nation pass overhead. The ability to signal in a nuclear crisis is a characteristic found only in the bomber force.

By their very nature, SSBNs and ICBMs are designed to be stealthy and hidden from view. Consequently, their utility in an escalation/de-escalation scenario is extremely limited. In fact, the range of missions in which either could be employed and the kinds of attacks and weapons effects they could create are very limited. Although initially flushing submarines from port or increasing the alert posture of the ICBM force could signal American concern during a crisis, little more can be done with these weapons systems after that to send a clear message to an adversary.

In terms of signaling, strategic bombers also enhance the effectiveness of coercive threats. Absent the ability to clearly communicate both the will and the capability to carry out an attack, coercion does not work. Therefore, to be an effective tool in crisis management, strike assets need to be employable in ways that visibly communicate one’s capability, resolve, and restraint. Only nuclear capable bombers can effectively perform this function.

Thus, it is strange to see organizations that claim to understand how best to maintain an effective nuclear deterrent, while also expressing concern about Chinese aggression, advocating a nuclear force composed of ballistic missile submarines alone. It is simply poor strategic logic.
Read it all here. This final point is worth emphasizing.  Our nuclear deterrent serves two major missions--deterring an attack on the United States and deterring attacks on our allies.  While adversaries have little doubt of our willingness to respond to a nuclear attack on the United States, there is often doubt, both by adversaries and allies, of our willingness to respond to a nuclear attack on our allies.  Strategic bombers have been very useful to express our will, for example, when North Korea threatened war against South Korea. 

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