One of the first things I did after coming to Strategic Air Command was to conduct a back-to-basics review of the guidance given to us about what our mission is and how we are to carry it out. I wanted to “begin at the beginning” and see what we’ve been told to do, why we were told to do it, and where we stand in terms of being able to accomplish the tasks assigned to us. Not surprisingly, this review reinforced my understanding that SAC has the principal and fundamental responsibility to provide this nation with a nuclear combat capability strong enough to deter even the thought of a nuclear attack on the US or our allies. The task may sound simple, but carrying it out is difficult—and awesome in its importance.
During my review, I also realized that we often use terms not commonly understood by the public (throw-weight, damage expectancy, delivery vehicles, MIRVs, and rideout) and thereby have made our task “un-understandable” to many. We often make it sound so complicated that only those directly involved with the strategic nuclear mission can carry on a substantive conversation about it. Understandably, there are many others who also participate in open discussions concerning strategic forces and strategy; however, their comments and statements are often based on partial knowledge or limited understanding at best. Thus, even though they mean well, they cause confusion or simply obfuscate the issues.
What I would like to do in this article, therefore, is to return to the basics and try to explain what we are trying to do in the strategic nuclear world and why we are trying to do it. To do that, I am going first to discuss Soviet objectives and initiatives, then provide a quick review of the evolution of US strategy to meet the Soviet challenge, and then discuss the force requirements that are necessary to carry out US strategy. I’ll close with a downstream look and some comments about where I think we need to go in the future and how we can get there.
From what the Soviets say and write, it appears their objectives are fairly straightforward. The Soviets seek to steadily expand the Marxist-Leninist form of communism throughout the world and become the world’s preeminent power. They would prefer to accomplish these objectives while avoiding an armed conflict with the United States. Although the Soviets have said much about peaceful competition to achieve their goals, realistically, they lack the economic power to compete with the West. Consequently, the Soviets’ alternative means to achieve their objectives are through political persuasion or military power—or a combination of both.
That makes military superiority enormously useful to them. With it, they could increase their pressure on Western alliances, expand their support of groups and countries that are anti-Western, and more effectively carry out their policy of expansion. Thus, in the Soviet view, nuclear strength is a key element in enabling them to attain their national objectives.
What the Soviets Are Doing
Soviet military goals and objectives have not changed in the post-World War II era, nor has their quest for military superiority. Beginning in the early 1960s, the Soviets began a concentrated effort to field forces needed first to match and then exceed US military strength. In the following years, they have been successful in building an effective offensive nuclear force and coupling it with significant defensive capability as well.
Soviet strategic offensive forces consist of three primary groups of weapons: intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and bombers. They have expanded and improved their forces in each of these categories.
The Soviets have built a variety of very large intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), most of which carry several nuclear warheads. The Soviets now have slightly fewer than 1,400 ICBMs. More than 6,000 weapons sit atop those ICBMs, and each is capable of striking individual targets in the United States. As the Soviets pursue additional technological advances, they continue to construct new types of ICBMs, each more efficient than the systems they replace.
Additionally, the Soviets have deployed several classes of submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) that can be launched from submerged submarines in waters anywhere from those adjacent to the Soviet Union to those just off US coasts. The time of flight for submarine-launched missiles, therefore, could vary from being similar to that of their land-based ICBMs to just a few short minutes if the submarine were close to our shores. As with their ICBMs, Soviet submarines have been upgraded and replaced through the years. The Soviets now operate a very large, effective, and efficient underwater fleet.
In the case of nuclear bombers, the Soviets have the Backfire bomber, which has the range to fly from the Soviet Union to the United States. The Backfire would have to land in Cuba or another Western Hemisphere country friendly to the Soviets to refuel before returning to the Soviet Union. They are also developing a new bomber called the Blackjack, which looks similar to the US B-IB bomber but is larger and faster. It will have intercontinental range, thus enabling it to return directly to the Soviet Union after an attack on the United States. Additionally, they are producing the Bear-H, a turboprop bomber with intercontinental range that carries air-launched cruise missiles as its primary weapon. The combination of these three aircraft gives the Soviets an effective offensive bomber capability.
The Soviets have committed themselves to a long-term, persistent military buildup of unprecedented size and momentum. Against a background in which the quantity of Soviet forces has always been impressive, significant quality improvements are now in evidence as well.
For example, their primary ICBM missile forces (SS-17, SS-18, and SS-19) are positioned in underground silos encased in steel and concrete—which we call hardened silos—that preclude their destruction in any attack that has less than “bull’s-eye” accuracy. Their newest missile, the SS-25, is moved around on a large truck and thereby can be quickly dispersed around the Soviet countryside. Soviet facilities that would safeguard political and military leadership personnel and command and control capabilities during a nuclear conflict are also protected by hardening or mobility. These survivability measures are largely intended to support a war-winning strategy that would “guarantee” (in their minds) Soviet nuclear superiority in a postwar world.
They also have in place a strategic air defense program—with new radar warning systems, lethal surface-to-air missiles, combat-effective fighter interceptors, and an antiballistic missile system ringing Moscow. Although their defensive system is already massive in scope, it is being expanded even further to limit the effects of possible US retaliation and to protect Soviet forces, leaders, and war-sustaining industries.
A review of where the Soviets have been and where they are going shows that Soviet goals have remained consistent and uncompromising over the years. They have devoted enormous amounts of money and effort toward building the forces necessary to achieve their political and military objectives.
What We Need To Do
What we have to do, then, is to ensure we have a logical strategy and sufficient combat capability to deter the Soviets and thereby deny them any plausible opportunity for achieving their politico-military objectives. In other words, we must have a strategy—and forces to support our strategy—to preclude any Soviet perception that they could successfully attack the United States or its allies. Our strategy and forces must also be sufficient to prevent the Soviets from attaining military superiority, which they could use to accomplish their objectives short of war by intimidating us or our allies.
A review of the past forty years shows that from the late 1940s through the 1950s, the United States had superior nuclear forces. Our strategy was called “massive retaliation” and was backed by sufficient strategic muscle to inflict a massive blow against the enemy if he attacked. However, beginning in the late 1950s, the Soviets began a massive buildup of nuclear arms. As a result, our strategy of relying on a single, massive, nuclear response to deter all types of aggression against us or our allies was no longer credible.
To deal with the multifaceted Soviet threat, the Kennedy Administration introduced in 1961 a new strategy called “flexible response,” which means the President needs to have forces available that permit him to have a range of effective response options. The response options dictated by our strategy require forces with counterforce capabilities. This means that the President has to have the right balance of forces so that he can direct effective attacks against the full range of critical Soviet assets: military forces, political and military leadership, and their war-sustaining industrial base. Today, twenty-five years later, that strategy remains fundamentally unchanged.
Unfortunately, a gap began to widen between US strategy and US capability to carry out the strategy, whereas the Soviet strategy-capabilities gap began to narrow for them. By the beginning of this decade, it had become obvious that the Soviet military buildup had caused the balance of nuclear power to shift in their favor. Starting in the late 1970s, US strategy underwent adjustments realistically to address the issue of how to deter the Soviets. The reassessment led to the reaffirmation of the strategy and the development of the President’s Strategic Modernization Program, intended to reinvigorate our forces so that they might meet the demanding requirements of flexible response.
Given sufficient weapon systems with flexibility and credible counterforce capabilities, we can be confident that a nuclear war would be too costly for the Soviets ever to consider. If the Soviets believe we can execute our strategy, there will be no conflict, since they will be deterred from initiating one—and that is our objective.
Capabilities and Forces
Our capability to achieve prompt retaliatory damage against the hardest Soviet targets is improving, but to do the job right, we need better accuracy than our current fully upgraded Minuteman missiles can technically provide. Our ballistic missiles can arrive promptly in the target area, and our bombers have hard-target capability, but neither weapon system has both attributes—both prompt and hard-target capability—and that is what we need to hold this target set at risk.
With regard to the manned bomber, I consider the human presence in the manned bomber crucial to detecting, identifying, and attacking the growing number
of Soviet relocatable targets. (Relocatable targets refer to the increasing numbers of Soviet warfighting assets that could disperse and relocate, primarily to avoid detection and destruction.) The capability of the manned bomber to penetrate enemy airspace and search out and destroy relocatable targets, particularly the highly threatening mobile ICBMs, is essential.
Finally, we can never allow the Soviets to believe they could fight a nuclear war and emerge with a preeminent balance of power. To dispel any Kremlin visions about postattack Soviet coercion, we must ensure that we hold in reserve a sufficient number of nuclear weapons with different ranges and lethality capabilities to carry out flexible response options.
Near-term strategic modernization programs are specifically designed to meet the requirements of US strategy and increase our flexibility to adapt to changing future conditions. After fifteen years of effort, we are bringing our first fifty Peacekeeper missiles up on alert in upgraded Minuteman silos. Peacekeeper substantially increases our ability to hold the Soviet warfighting structure at risk because of its accurate, prompt hard-target capability.
Bomber modernization is also very important to our strategy. The B-IB has reached its initial operational capability. It is a highly capable, multirole bomber. Its capabilities assure that we can penetrate enemy airspace well into the 1990s. Later, we will deploy the Advanced Technology Bomber (sometimes dubbed the “Stealth,” which is a low-radar observable airplane). In the late 1980s, the Advanced Cruise Missile will come on board. Its greater range will permit bombers to stand off and launch from beyond future Soviet defenses. And because of its very small radar signature, it will be very successful in penetrating enemy defenses and effectively attacking targets assigned to it.
Most important, we must convey to the potential enemy a convincing capability to respond immediately to an attack of any magnitude and duration. A number of ongoing command control and communications (C3) initiatives will ensure we can meet this objective. For example, the Ground Wave Emergency Network, or GWEN, will use an array of ground relay sites to provide high-confidence relay of messages from warning sensors to the National Command Authorities (NCA) and from the NCA to the forces. Many other C3 systems are coming on board that will provide great confidence in our ability to direct the operation of our forces—even under the most severe circumstances.
We’re making excellent progress in improving our deterrent capabilities during this decade. We will enter the 1990s significantly better off than we were.
Modernization for the 1990s
Continuing the Strategic Force Modernization Program into the mid-1990s with an additional fifty Peacekeepers, the Small ICBM, the Trident D-5, and the Advanced Technology Bomber will allow us to carry out our strategy fully. The systems called for in the President’s Strategic Force Modernization Program will provide several very important capabilities.
Follow-on Peacekeeper missiles deployed in the rail-garrison basing mode will improve the flexibility and endurance of the ICBM leg of our triad. In the rail- garrison basing concept, specially designed railcars would transport and serve as launchers for Peacekeeper missiles. Day to day, the Peacekeeper trains would be on alert in secure garrisons (similar to current bomber alert areas) on existing Air Force bases. In a crisis, the trains would be moved onto the more than 200,000 miles of commercial rail track, thereby posing an unsolvable attack problem for the Soviets. Rail-garrison basing for Peacekeeper will add significantly to deterrence, is cost-effective, and is easily understood by the public.
The Small ICBM will contribute measurably to US force survivability and strategic flexibility. The Small ICBM combat crew will be able to drive their hardened mobile launch vehicle to a new position, safe through dispersal from enemy targeting, and sustain their weapon system’s effectiveness for an extended period. As directed, we will have the ability to retarget and launch the missile from the deployed location.
D-5 missiles deployed in Trident submarines will be highly accurate weapons in a survivable basing mode. The combined response of D-5 and Peacekeeper missiles against hardened Soviet silos and leadership facilities will achieve the required level of prompt damage.
Additionally, the highly flexible Advanced Technology Bomber, with a low-observable design, will penetrate enemy airspace and hold all types of targets, both fixed and relocatable, at risk. This is tremendously important given the growing portion of the Soviet target base that will be relocatable in the next decade.
Finally, as the quality and endurance of our forces improve, we can remedy the imbalance between the US and Soviet postattack capabilities by adding such weapon systems as the D-5 and the Small ICBM to our strategic reserve. Such programmed C3 enhancements as the Survivable, Endurable Command Center and the Milstar communications satellite system will provide the capabilities needed for more effective planning and control of these new weapon systems.
I’m convinced flexible response continues to be the right strategy at the right time. The means to support that strategy fully are well within our grasp. We can ensure that no Soviet leader could believe that Soviet war aims are attainable. That is the essence of credible deterrence. That means a world free of conflict between major powers. It means keeping Americans alive and free and at peace.
My back-to-basics review illuminated several important considerations. Some of the forces we need to carry out our strategic tasks are already operational; more will be coming on line in the near future. The remaining programs are progressing well. Much of the needed investment has already been made. What remains is to stay the course, to complete within the next decade what we set out to do fifteen years ago—to implement fully our strategy of flexible response, a strategy that will keep the peace. Our nation and the people of our great country deserve nothing less.
Gen. John T Chain, Jr., is Commander in Chief of Strategic Air Command and Director of the Joint Strategic Target Planning Staff. A command pilot and master parachutist, he has accumulated more than 4,000 hours of flying time in thirty-four different aircraft. He assumed his present position in June 1986.