Russia and China may seize the strategic initiative from the US
On May 5, 2021, an incident occurred in the US armed forces. The planned test launch of the American Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile, scheduled for this day, did not take place. The missile was supposed to launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
The US Air Force reported that the launch of the missile was interrupted on the ground before the launch, and that this fact is being investigated. The US Air Force Global Strike Command is considering postponing the launch.
The May 5 incident is an unpleasant situation for the US military, because it is about strategic nuclear deterrence, the technical state of the US nuclear triad, and the potential ability to launch a nuclear strike against a potential enemy.
It should be noted that on May 6, 2021, the US Chamber of Accounts, the audit, evaluation and analytical-investigative body of the US Congress, published an unclassified part of the report entitled "The Nuclear Triad. The Department of Defence and the Department of Energy face challenges that pose risks to U.S. deterrence efforts”. The report itself was prepared in June 2020.
According to this document, the US nuclear triad currently consists of three components: ground – based-in the form of 450 LGM–30G Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles (400 of them deployed), sea – in the form of 240 submarine-based ballistic missiles deployed on Ohio-class strategic nuclear submarines, air - in the form of 20 B-2A Spirit strategic bombers and 46 B-52H Stratofortress strategic bombers (from them 40 B-52H are deployed).
Restrictions on the deployment of nuclear warheads and carriers are related to the framework of the Treaty between the Russian Federation and the United States of America on Measures for the Further Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Weapons (START-3), extended until February 5, 2026.
The US Department of Defence estimates that the modernisation of the nuclear triad will cost about $280-350 billion between fiscal years 2019 and 2041. At the same time, we are talking about 2019’s dollars. These projected expenditures include efforts to modernise and replace the obsolete aircraft, submarines, and sea-and land-based missiles that make up the three branches of the nuclear triad, as well as the many elements of the nuclear command, control, and communications system that provide control over these systems.
Let's go through the weapons systems of the US strategic nuclear forces.
The US has 454 launchers with 400 deployed Minuteman III ICBMs. This weapon is in constant combat readiness, can be launched within a few minutes and is able to hit the intended targets within 30 minutes after launch. In addition, launch teams on specialised aircraft can remotely launch the Minuteman III if launch control centres are not available. As a result, they are considered the fastest-reacting part of the nuclear triad.
The LGM-30G Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles have been in service since 1970-1977 and were supposed to have a 10-year service life. But since then, their service life has been extended several times. The USAF plans to maintain the Minuteman III until 2030 and gradually reduce the number of missiles in service until their expected complete decommissioning in 2036.
The US has 14 strategic nuclear submarines with Ohio-class nuclear ballistic missiles. Each submarine has 24 missile launchers, but only 20 of them are used to house Trident II D5 missiles. This deployment structure was adopted in accordance with START-3.
The US Navy began using the Ohio-class submarines in 1981 with a planned service life of 30 years. In 1998, the Department of Defence decided to extend the service life of the Ohio-class submarines to 42 years, more than any previous class of submarines. The U.S. Navy plans to decommission the first Ohio-class submarine in 2027, and then decommission one submarine a year until 2041.
The US has 66 nuclear-armed heavy bombers in the air component of the nuclear triad. We are talking about 20 B-2A Spirit bombers and 46 B-52H Stratofortress bombers. The Air Force began operating the B-2A Spirit in 1997 and plans to maintain the bomber well into the 2030s. According to other information, the service life of these combat vehicles expires in 2032.
As a nuclear weapon, the B-2A Spirit will use the B61-12 bomb, which will replace the B61-3, B61-4, B61-7 and B61-10 nuclear bombs in service. The B61-11 variant will be retained.
The USAF began operating the B-52H strategic bomber in 1961 with an initial planned service life of 20 years. However, it is planned to keep it in operation until at least 2050.
The B-52H uses air-launched cruise missiles (ALCM), equipped with a W80-1 nuclear warhead, to strike targets from a distance. The Air Force began operating the ALCM in 1982. The original planned service life of the ALCM was 10 years. The Air Force has extended the service life of the ALCM missiles and plans to keep them in service until at least 2030. The Air Force intends to replace the ALCM with a delivery system and a warhead, known respectively as the Long Range Standoff Weapon (LRSO) and the W80-4.
If we exclude the B-2A Spirit bomber, then the US strategic nuclear forces are currently armed with systems that have been operated since the Cold War. At the same time, many models of weapons significantly extend their service lives. The most striking example: the B-52H Stratofortress strategic bomber in 2050 will have been in service for about 90 years.
If we talk about the B-2A Spirit strategic bomber, it can only use free-fall nuclear bombs. Thus, in a military conflict with an enemy with a developed air defence system, it is simply useless. In this case, the same old man B-52H has a much greater combat potential, because it is able to strike with cruise missiles with nuclear warheads, without entering the enemy's air defence zone.
The real level of technical condition of the US nuclear triad is known to American military leaders. During his recent appearance before the US Senate Armed Services Committee, the head of the US Strategic Command, Admiral Charles Richard, said:
"We are at a point where the lifetime constraints and cumulative consequences of not investing enough in our nuclear deterrence and support infrastructure against an expanding threat leave me with no operational margin. Our nation simply cannot try to indefinitely extend the life of weapons systems left over from the Cold War and successfully implement the strategy set."
Of course, the US Armed Forces have a program to modernise the strategic nuclear forces. It was outlined in the 2018 U.S. Nuclear Policy Review. However, this was still under President Donald Trump.
The new US administration has not yet made a final decision, in particular, on the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) program, which involves replacing the Minuteman III ICBMs in service with new missiles. The initial operational readiness of the first GBSD ICBMs is planned for 2029.
There is an opinion that this program is very expensive: starting from development, the cost of its life cycle until 2075 is estimated at about $264 billion. As an alternative, a proposal is being put forward to modernise the Minuteman III missiles and extend their service life until 2050.
The 14 Ohio-class strategic nuclear submarines are to be replaced by 12 Columbia-class submarines. All of them should be built by 2042. The first nuclear deterrent patrol of the lead submarine of this series is scheduled for October 2030. The total cost of the project is estimated at approximately $128 billion, i.e. each submarine will cost an average of $10.67 billion, which is almost catching up with the cost of an aircraft carrier.
The first flight of the B-21 Raider strategic bomber, which will replace the B-2A and B-52H, is expected in mid-2022. Previously, it was expected in December 2021. The estimated cost of one combat vehicle is already at the moment $550 million. American experts believe that the B-21 Raider bomber will enter service no earlier than the second half of the 2020s. Officials at the Pentagon expect an order of 150 aircraft.
An important detail: both the GBSD program and the B-21 Raider are handled by the same American company, Northrop Grumman. It turns out that the modernisation of both the ground and air components of the US nuclear triad depends on the work of this company.
The prospect of the appearance of a new strategic bomber, a new intercontinental ballistic missile, and a strategic nuclear submarine in the US armed forces - in 5-10 years. And a complete renewal of the US’ nuclear triad is potentially possible in about 20 years.
In 2021, the share of modern weapons and equipment in the Russian strategic nuclear forces will exceed 88%. The ground component of the Russian Nuclear Triad will be fully updated in 2024, and the sea component – by 2027.
Thus, if we take the factor of modernisation of the strategic nuclear forces of the US, then both Russia and China have a convenient time period of about 10-20 years for internal growth and geopolitical transformations in the conditional near abroad. If we take the factor of the potential deployment of American shorter-and medium-range missiles in the Asia-Pacific region and Europe, then this period of time is reduced to about 4-6 years.
And it is necessary to use this convenient time as much as possible to our advantage.