The biggest crises in recent U.S. history have been caused by challenges that nobody saw coming.
No one expected terrorists to fly jetliners into iconic American buildings in 2001, and no one predicted that the worst global pandemic in a century was on our doorstep 18 years later.
Lack of imagination in both cases led to subpar responses.
So it probably isn’t a good thing that nobody in Washington seems to worry much anymore about the possibility of a crisis leading to nuclear war.
Outside the fraternity of practitioners charged with sustaining America’s nuclear force, the number of experts who have something useful to say about strategic deterrence is remarkably small.
After all, nuclear war is the one threat that could destroy our civilization before sundown.
Against that backdrop, the Air Force on July 1 awarded a contract to Raytheon Technologies for development of a new air-launched nuclear system.
It is called the Long-Range Standoff (LRSO) weapon, and it is designed to help U.S. bombers penetrate heavily defended airspace in the event of a nuclear exchange.
The plan, as with other U.S. nuclear weapons, is that by fielding a potent strategic system, Washington will convince potential enemies there is nothing to be gained and a great deal to be lost in contemplating aggression.
The U.S. maintains a “triad” of long-range nuclear systems—submarine-based ballistic missiles, silo-based ballistic missiles, and manned bombers—that assures retaliation if such aggression occurs.
LRSO is designed to guarantee that the bomber “leg” of the triad can support its part of the deterrence mission by providing a stealthy, low-flying weapon that reliably penetrates air defenses even when the bombers carrying them cannot.
Although the nuclear cruise missiles currently carried on U.S. bombers are rapidly approaching obsolescence, some critics have questioned whether it is necessary to buy LRSO with the other parts of the triad also being modernized.
The answer is yes, mainly because even the most advanced bombers may face formidable defenses in the future, and it isn’t feasible for each bomber to attack multiple remote targets without a weapon that can extend its reach.
Air Force officials say that the vast majority of strategic targets assigned to bombers in any nuclear exchange would need to be addressed using standoff weapons like LRSO.
But that is only half the reason why the new weapon is needed.
There is a weakness in the ballistic-missile legs of the triad that seldom is discussed publicly, but could prove critical in a crisis.
Once you launch a ballistic missile, it’s gone.
It isn’t coming back.
The ballistic missiles in the U.S. nuclear deterrent can’t be recalled, or retargeted, or disabled once they are launched.
So in a crisis, such as a Russian invasion of Eastern Europe, the U.S. doesn’t have many options for using its intercontinental ballistic missiles or their undersea counterparts.
It can either launch them, or threaten to launch them.
There is no middle option where the silos or submarines can be visibly moved to signal resolve.
Quite the opposite: opening the silo doors or surfacing the submarines would invite an immediate attack.
Bombers aren’t like that.
They take hours to reach their targets, and therefore can be launched well in advance of any actual strikes to signal how seriously Washington views a provocation.
The dispersal of bombers to remote bases and dispatch on attack vectors, which can be monitored by enemies, would be a powerful signaling mechanism in any crisis.
But unlike in the case of the ballistic missiles, the bombers can be launched and then recalled.
They can be retargeted.
Thus, they are intrinsically more flexible in a crisis.
The main drawback associated with using the bombers to signal resolve is that once they are airborne, adversaries are going to have a pretty good idea of where the bombers are headed.
They only have so much unrefueled range, and the tankers that might be used to provide aerial refueling are easily tracked (and intercepted).
In other words, although launching bombers in a crisis can send a powerful message, it also helps defenders to prepare for the attack.
If the bombers were carrying nothing but gravity bombs or non-stealthy cruise missiles, future defenders would have a good chance of preventing them from reaching targets.
LRSO would eliminate this problem because it is essentially invisible to enemy radar and other defenses.
From a single point outside hostile airspace, a bomber could reliably attack multiple strategic targets up to 1500 miles away.
The U.S. Air Force thus could launch its bombers, assuring they are not destroyed on the ground, and send a powerful signal to aggressors without actually committing to an attack.
Nobody likes to think about such scenarios, but in a future crisis LRSO could prove decisive in defusing a crisis before it escalates to nuclear war.
Bombers carrying gravity bombs or obsolescent cruise missiles with doubtful ability to penetrate would be a far less effective way of signaling that Washington means business.
If you find such thinking incredible, you might want review the various crises that have occurred previously in the nuclear era that could have led to war.
Such crises will arise again in the future, and when they do having a weapon like LRSO will discourage aggression in a way current weapons will not.