Our Allies Need US To Modernize Nuke Triad: Gen. Ray
Sydney J. Freedberg Jr.
WASHINGTON: In a clear appeal to the incoming Biden administration, the commander of the Air Force’s strategic bombers and ICBMs says America’s allies are counting on us to stay the course and completely modernize our nuclear triad — not cut it back.
Gen. Timothy Ray’s remarks to today’s online Triad Symposium were pre-recorded. It’s not clear if he knew, when he made his arguments, that Biden had decided to nominate retired Army four-star Lloyd Austin for Secretary of Defense, a military insider unlikely to challenge established priorities. But even under Austin, there’ll be tremendous pressure to cut the Pentagon budget post-COVID, and some Democrats have long advocated saving money by slashing nukes. Some have even argued for going down to just one leg of the Cold War triad, eliminating Air Force ICBMs and air-launched weapons in favor of a total reliance on Navy nuclear submarines
Ray, one of the military’s quieter and more thoughtful generals, certainly seemed to be trying to preempt the cut-the-triad argument even before his new superiors are sworn in. Besides the usual arguments about the Russian and Chinese threat, Ray put new emphasis today on how America’s international allies and partners rely on a credible US triad as their nuclear umbrella — what strategic theorists call “extended deterrence.”
Saying something is bad because it would upset our foreign friends is not an argument that would go very far with the Trump administration, who sometimes seemed to take a visceral delight in swipes at longtime allies. But it’s a line of argument likely to resonate with Biden’s band of mainstream Democrats.
It’s really important that we don’t let these issues, really, get swept up into ideologies or into political transitions between administrations,” Ray said. “It’s not simply a question of whether you are for or against nuclear weapons. It really isn’t an option anymore.” (An extensive and bipartisan Nuclear Posture Review executed under President Obama came to exactly that conclusion)
The US nuclear triad looms large “in the minds of our partners and allies,” he said. “The extended deterrence provided to them by the American triad is an important part of their strategic calculus. We can’t on our own, just in isolation or unilaterally, change that equation and be responsible partners and allies.”
In particular, Ray said, it’s essential to have a “visible dimension of a triad, an element of it that would be committed to a regional issue… to remind our partners and allies, and certainly our would-be adversaries, that it’s there.”
While Ray didn’t say so aloud, neither submarines (below the water) nor ICBMs (below in the ground, in the US) are particularly “visible” to US allies and adversaries. That’s the unique contribution of Air Force strategic bombers.
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A US Air Force B-52 flies over the Pacific.
Indeed, the Pentagon has put new emphasis in recent years on more rapidly, flexibly, and visibly deploying new “Bomber Task Forces” to Europe and the Indo-Pacific. Then-Defense Secretary Mark Esper (since fired by Trump) publicly praised the Bomber Task Force concept as “one of the strongest and most visible examples” of a new strategic known as Dynamic Force Employment. Today, Ray said the current task forces are merely “Version 1.0” and will soon become even more effective with upgraded capabilities, like externally carried cruise missiles on the B-1B and, in future, more cruise missiles and even hypersonic weapons on the entire bomber fleet.
“We’ve seen tremendous support for our bomber task forces from our partners and allies,” Ray said, gaining permission to “fly over every NATO country… I know for a fact it is driving our Russian competitors crazy.”
Russia regularly makes veiled or blatant nuclear threats against NATO members – at one point even menacing Denmark. To back up those threats, it has “fully modernized” its own triad of bombers, land-based missiles, and submarines, Ray said, along with holding more realistic “snap” exercises for rapid deployment of nuclear weapons. And just this year, China abandoned its longtime strategy of “a minimalist nuclear deterrent” based on a small force of ICBMs and publicly declared it now had a complete triad as well, with plans to “at least double” their arsenal by 2030. (That said, China is starting from such a small baseline that doubling it is not actually too impressive).
“There’s a myth out there that nukes are less relevant,” he said. “You can take that position, but the Russians and the Chinese are taking a very different position.” (While Ray didn’t mention them, North Korea and Iran also certainly seem to think nuclear weapons are relevant.)
Replacing its aging Cold War systems with new ones: the Minuteman III IBCM with the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent, the Air-Launched Cruise Missile with the new Long-Range Stand-Off weapon, the B-2 with the B-21, the Ohio submarines with the Columbia-class, and so on, does not constitute an arms race, Ray argued.
“The number of things that now fall outside of arms control agreements is very troubling,” he said. “How that is viewed in the minds of our partners and allies — even if it’s not a very public conversation, I think if they’re candid, in person, they’ll tell you they’re real concerned.”
“Where we have been successful as a nation and an alliance [is] where modernization and arms control go together…We don’t have the luxury of leaning on one or the other,” Ray said. “So if we’re really serious about counter-proliferation, we need to be serious about a modern US triad.”
Indeed, in one of his subtler arguments, Ray made the case that the nuclear triad is not just about deterrence – its traditional purpose – but about competition. In other words, the arsenal isn’t just there as a last resort, break-glass-in-case-of-fire, sitting idle while it waits for Armageddon. Instead, it’s a tool available every day to commanders and diplomats, who can use it for strategic signaling to reassure allies, embolden friends and give adversaries pause.
The 2018 National Defense Strategy – praised by a majority of experts on both sides of the aisle – emphasizes a trifecta of “compete, deter, win.” But, Ray said, “the most important of those three is really compete.”
“We in this command have embraced that competitive mindset,” he said. “It’s really not about how many weapons you have, it’s really about how these systems compete.”
Pentagon leaders have emphasized that this renewed great power competition is very different from great power war. That distinction arguably blurs in the so-called grey zone between peace and war, where Russia and China use deniable agents and proxies – militias and separatists, hackers and trolls – to achieve strategic goals, routinely employing theft and armed force, but keeping it “below the threshold” of what US law considers open armed conflict. The difference between largely peaceful competition and outright war is a vital one to maintain when it comes to nuclear arms.
“We’re in a great power competition that’s infinite in its nature,” Ray said, citing Simon Sinek’s Infinite Game.
In Sinek’s framework, borrowed from philosopher James Carse, a finite game – like baseball, chess, or a formally declared war between two post-Westphalian nation-states – is played within clear limits: Some actions are permitted, others aren’t; there are only so many players; and, above all, the game begins at a specific time and ends when someone has won. But a lot of things don’t fit that framework, like strategic jockeying between rival businesses or nations, which never ends, or nuclear war, which can have no winner. An infinite game goes on as long as any players remain, with new players coming and going all the time — and they’re playing, not to win once and for all, but to survive and keep playing.
That may be a much safer way to think about the role of nuclear weapons than wanting to “win.” But the US has a historic tendency to think of conflicts and ending them in narrow terms – which often cedes the long-term conflict to more patient competitors.
“A finite player tries to beat the competitors until they either run out of resources, time, or will,” Ray said. “You can make the case that in the Cold War, our adversaries ran out of resources. They ran out of time. But I actually don’t think they ran out of will….The only one who truly stopped competing was the United States.”