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Russian bombers over Guam raise questions about America’s credibility

Is America vulnerable to a first strike, decapitation blow? Photo: Andersen AFB in Guam is one of America's forward strategic basing points. / USAF file photo
Monday, February 18, 2013 - Making Waves: A Hawaii Perspective on Washington Politics by Danny de Gracia

HONOLULU, February 19, 2013 – America spent a decade mired in bloody pursuit of a ragtag band of insurgents, terrorists and criminals under the assumption that fourth generation warfare would be the wave of the future. Senior officials routinely opined in defense journals that fighterplanes and strategic bombers were irrelevant and wasteful as “expeditionary commanders” would surely face only lightly armed, poorly trained banana republics as opponents. Some highly esteemed academics even went so far as to imply the Navy and Air Force should be abolished and that America should have an all-infantry force for so-called global “prestige” and power.

Yet in spite of all the intellectual pedantry, the drones and the “transformation” of the military since the year 2000, on Tuesday last week the Russian Air Force with its 1950s era strategic nuclear bombers knocked flat the “high tech, fast, lean and mean” house of cards that our modern defense is so precariously perched upon.

Had Russia’s purportedly backward military been at war with the United States and launched a nuclear first strike against our forward positioned strategic forces in Guam,  whatever the platform of Russia’s choosing had been – sub launched SLBM, land based ICBM or standoff air-launched missile – it is arguable that our forces would have been caught unprepared on the ground.

Counterforce Credibility and a Secured Second Strike Capability

Over the last few decades, the United States has operated under the quaint assumption that in the event of a nuclear war, our forces would have more than enough advance warning to disperse and avoid destruction in a first-strike attack. However as the historical examples of the Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor and the terrorist acts on September 11, 2001 demonstrate, even when actionable intelligence of a threat exists the signal-to-noise ratio can be so high that policymakers fail to properly assess threats and act accordingly.

Yet the whole point of national defense is to ensure that no matter the idiosyncrasies or partisan preferences of the elected Congress or presidency, America remains safe and secure because redundant systems are in place to ensure threats are mitigated and enemies are deterred.

If deterrence fails and an attack occurs, the defense system is intended to ensure the survival of the American way of life and the defeat of our enemies. Nonetheless, it was during the early 1970s that experts began to fear that America was vulnerable to a first strike because our counterforce credibility was sorely lacking in several areas.

For starters, during the 1970s our airspace was largely open and unguarded (a problem that remains today, albeit worse so) allowing Soviet bombers such as the Tu-95 which recently buzzed Guam and the Tu-22 Backfire an opportunity in war to roam with impunity against our bases.

The development of the Air Force’s F-15 Eagle as well as the E-3 Sentry AWACS early warning aircraft helped partially ameliorate this problem, but as only a small fraction of the B-52 force was on airborne alert, the majority of our strategic bombers were parked on the ground and susceptible to first-strike by Soviet bombers, submarines and long-range ICBMs. That left two other legs of the nuclear triad – the land based missile force and the sea-based submarine boomer force – to serve as a secured second strike capability against a well-executed surprise attack.

Submarines while stealthy still suffer from the fact that an astute enemy can determine their movements and either strike at a time they are in port or eliminate them through anti-submarine aircraft or attack submarines of their own. There is also remote possibility that they can be cut off from communications in the event of a nuclear war, leaving the land-based ICBM as an important deterrent.

How survivable is America’s bomber fleet? In the event of a real Russian or Chinese first strike, how many of our aircraft would be caught on the ground? (USAF file photo)

The problem with the 1970s ICBM force was the fact that the LGM-30 Minutemen missiles were antiquated and somewhat inaccurate, thus making them unreliable against hardened Soviet ICBM sites. This prompted the development of the LGM-118 Peacekeeper missile as well as the modernization of all LGM-30s to Minuteman III standard, nevertheless the Peacekeeper was intended to replace the Minuteman. Under President George W. Bush, the LGM-118s were withdrawn from service, leaving only the older (yet upgraded) Minutemen missiles to constitute our land-based ICBM deterrent.

In effect, today we are defending America with the very weapons in 1970 our policymakers were worried needed to be replaced to maintain our edge in a nuclear environment. Our bombers are old, our fighers are old, our ballisitic submarines are old, our ICBMs are old and our conventional forces are worn down by the ongoing Global War On Terror.

If during the 1970s at the peak of America’s readiness we were vulnerable to nuclear attack, how much less credible are our nuclear forces as fiscal challenges, the ongoing war on terror and the Obama Administration’s commitment to nuclear reduction erode our capability? Our Air Force and Navy are no longer in the business of nuclear deterrence as the priority is on anti-terrorism. While the rest of the world has no moral conflict in modernizing their arsenal, our leaders insist on dismantling America’s forces.

According to the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, the Administration believes “Russia and the United States are no longer adversaries and prospects for military confrontation have declined dramatically. The two have increased their cooperation in areas of shared interest, including preventing nuclear terrorism and nuclear proliferation.”

If that statement is accurate, then what is the explanation for Russia’s development of brand new SS-NX-30 Bulava submarine launched ballistic missiles and their Borei missile submarine – both of which are first strike platforms? Or what is the explanation for Russia’s modernization of their ICBM force since the late 1990s with the SS-27 Sickle-B missile?

If our countries are no longer adversaries, then why did Russia launch an unscheduled nuclear bomber exercise against Guam just before President Obama’s State of the Union Address?

The world knows that the United States is in the worst economic and fiscal crisis its government has seen yet. The world also knows that the United States – contrary to the rosy predictions of our politicians – is collapsing at home and abroad. When the Soviet Union fell in 1991, the United States was a magnanimous victor of the Cold War that even went so far as to spend taxpayer dollars in security assistance to Russia’s nuclear forces.

Thanks to Congress, the United States subsidized upgrades to Russian nuclear storage sites, transportation systems and even early warning systems to ensure stability. Of course, any legislator will tell you that we did this because nuclear security is important. But if the United States were to experience a major financial crash, would the Russians repay the favor and spend the money of their taxpayers to modernize and secure our nuclear forces? Or would the Russians and Chinese, in a position of strength, use their renewed military and diplomatic advantage to pressure the United States … or worse?

Serious Questions Demand Answers

The Russians have not been fighting a war against elusive bandits that hide in caves or plant roadside bombs for the last decade, nor have the Chinese. During this time, America has disarmed while her strongest competitors have rearmed. These are intolerable circumstances we are living in and though the better angels say idealistic things like “a world of zero nuclear weapons is achievable” reality dictates differently.

After last week’s incident with Russian Tu-95 bombers, there are some serious questions that must be asked of our policymakers. For starters:

1. What is your position on the Tu-95 bombers flying against Guam and does this change your view of America’s national security policy?

2. In the event that Russia and China successfully develop and deploy anti-satellite weapons in the near future, will America’s arsenal of remote controlled ISR platforms and armed drones be able to function efficiently in combat if their support satellites are destroyed?

3. In the event of a limited nuclear first strike against the United States that targets command and communications as well as bomber and ICBM sites, does the new “cost-saving” trend of joint bases make our strategic and conventional forces less dispersed and more susceptible to a decapitation blow?

4. When was the last nuclear alert or operational readiness exercise of our strategic forces conducted and how long did it take to arm the aircraft and scramble them off the ground? Was it more than 15 minutes?

5. It has been stated by “experts” that no fourth generation aircraft can survive the new air defense systems being developed. If this is true, how will the B-52, B-1 and B-2 bomber aircraft remain survivable with aging cruise missiles?

6. Can modern day cruise missiles successfully operate without the assistance of GPS satellites or advance aerial intelligence over flat terrain with minimal geographic features and successfully destroy flat targets such as an enemy ICBM silo with an accurate hit?

7. Would unmanned drones such as the Predator or Reaper be used to neutralize enemy nuclear weapons such as hardened silos, submarine facilities or bomber bases in a nuclear war? Or are these just meant for use against people, not states?

8. During the 2012 Presidential Election, America was told that the priority was for “more special operations and UAVs” or drones. Let’s talk about that. Would drones even work in a nuclear environment?

9. What is the average thermonuclear yield of a Russian or Chinese land-based ICBM? Are theirs larger than ours and if so, why?

10. The United States has assumed that its falling inventories of fighter aircraft will be offset by the qualitative superiority of BVR missiles such as the AIM-120 AMRAAM or the flexibility of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. What is the average kill probability of an AIM-120 and how many AIM-120s are loaded on the average alert aircraft, if at all? Would this be enough to repulse an aerial attack against the United States?

These are all questions that the recent incident over Guam raise in my mind. I would love to hear the answer to these questions but nonetheless I fear the United States no longer has the credibility to back up her inflated rhetoric or protect her vulnerable people at home. It’s time to get serious about defense again. We need to stop wasting our time on meaningless wars abroad and show the world that America will remain the land of the free and the home of the brave.

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Danny de Gracia

Dr. Danny de Gracia is a political scientist and a former senior adviser to the Human Services and International Affairs committees at the Hawaii State Legislature. From 2011-2013 he served as an elected municipal board member in Waipahu. As an expert in international relations theory, military policy, political psychology and economics, Danny has advised numerous policymakers and elected officials and his opinions have been featured worldwide. Now working on his first novel, Danny resides on the island of Oahu.

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