In Focus: SAC Backs Small ICBM

Aug. 1, 1983

The unglamorous requirements of fixing up old hardware to keep deterrence credible.

Washington, D. C., July 6—The strategic force modernization package drawn up by the Scowcroft Commission and presented to Congress by President Reagan in May is being jeopardized by allegations on Capitol Hill and in the news media that the Air Force is opposed to and is undermining, development of a small, singe-warhead ICBM. In addition to being false, these insinuations, in part at least, appear to be designed to derail the MX program and other efforts to modernize the land-based ICBMs

These innuendos are also apt to impede current arms-control efforts. Because the Commission’s recommendations produced, and are dependent on, a carefully constructed political consensus based on accommodating disparate congressional interests – from ardent arms-control supporters to committed hawks – removing any one element of the package would unravel this coalition of strange bedfellows and probably doom the strategic force modernization program in its entirely.

As General Bennie Davis, Commander in Chief of the Strategic Air Command, told this writer, the Air Force supports “wholeheartedly all the recommendations of the Scowcroft Commission, including development of a small single-RV ICBM. That is why we established a systems program office at [AFSC’s} Ballistic Missile Office and charged it with going ahead with the development” of the SICBM (small ICBM).

Whether the planned new small ICBM will eventually be deployed in a mobile mode or based in silos, perhaps even of a superhardened type, or “in a mixture of these,” he said, “you will need a reasonable development cycle” to get a system that has the combination of accuracy and yield required for hard-target kill and is compatible with different flexible basing modes, General Davis stressed. Reasonable in this context, the head of the Strategic Air Command suggested, probably means somewhere between six and ten years.

A pivotal element of the SICBM is a guidance system that can deliver the weapon’s single warhead – probably with a yield of about 470 kilotons – over full intercontinental ranges regardless of how the missile might be based with sufficient accuracy to assure hard-target kill capability. Expressing confidence that over time it will be possible to produce such a guidance system – based on either existing prototypes or proposed new designs – General Davis cautioned, however, “we can’t do all this by day after tomorrow.” The Scowcroft report defined the SICBM as weighing “about fifteen tons” and suggested that, barring major technological hitches, its full-scale development could be initiated in 1987. Initial operational capability (IOC) ought to be achieved by about 993, the Presidential Commission estimated.

Contrary to the contention of the “whisper campaign” on Capitol Hill that such a small, single-RV missile could be built with existing hardware; quite a number of technological and engineering hurdles need to be cleared before the SICBM could become a military reality. Preliminary studies suggest that the throw-weight of such a missile will have to be about 1,300 pounds in order to accommodate warheads large enough and guidance good enough to assure a reliable hard-target kill capability. On first blush, this means that the SICBM might have to be slightly heavier than 30,000 pounds, perhaps as high as 39,000 pounds.

When news of these preliminary estimates, based on prudent and conservative engineering principles, reached Congress, there were charges of one-upsmanship on the part of the Air Force coupled with threats of political reprisals. Among the latter was proposed legislation to curtail the deployment of MX unless the Air Force commits itself to holding the weight of the SICBM to 30,000 pounds and launches the program at once.

General Davis stressed that the 1,300-pound throw-weigh requirement – and hence the weight of the missile – was a function of range, accuracy, and warhead yield and not yet fully resolved. Two other issues associated with the Midgetman SICBM ill also require further work by the Air Force before the system can be defined in specific terms. For one there is the question of terminal guidance. This feature may prove necessary to achieve the weapon’s lethality against super-hard Soviet targets. In turn, terminal guidance might be confined to inertial guidance of an RV equipped to maneuver while descending on the target.

Another approach, yielding probably yet greater accuracy, would involve terminal guidance systems using external sensors, comparable to those used by the US Army’s Pershing II theater ballistic missile. General Davis explained that SAC prefers guidance systems that don’t depend on external elements that are subject to enemy countermeasures and susceptible to nuclear radiation effects. “In a doctrinaire sense we would like everything self-contained so that the won’t depend on an external system for that last fine tuning.”

If, on the other hand, the ICBM’s required accuracy levels can only be attained by means of external sensors and the associated technology provides a “high degree of assurance that the external source indeed has a very high level of survivability, then I wouldn’t object,” he pointed out.

Obviously, the nature and traits of the proposed new missile’s guidance system are determined largely by how the weapon will be based. So will be the required hardness of the weapon. If the SICBM is to be deployed in a fully mobile mode, it will require hardening levels different from a weapon that is protected by a superhard silo, General Davis said. Mobile deployment would also increase the weapon’s operational costs in a major way, he added: “Certainly the cost factor goes up exponentially when we allow for the number of people required to operate and guard a mobile system.”

Another as-yet-open question revolves around the cost-effectiveness of developing and buying Midgetman on the basis of full competition. SAC, the Air Force, and the Pentagon “of course would like full competition,” the head of the Strategic Air Command pointed out. Militating against this approach are concerns that this might not be practical because of a relatively tight schedule.

The result is a dilemma, General Davis suggested, because “if we insist on total competition with two or more complete systems, we probably would stretch out the development cycle.” On the other side of the ledger there is the risk of major technical setbacks that result from confining the competition to the critical component level – such as the guidance system – in order to compress the development process, he warned.

The tradeoffs will have to be weighed carefully for both technological and political reasons, General Davis pointed out, because the traditional defense critics who supported MX as an undesirable yet unavoidable precondition for development of the SICBM “will be watching very closely. If they get the impression that we are dragging our feet, that would create a major political problem.”

Two years ago SAC recommended deployment of MX in Minuteman silos as the “quickest way of enhancing our deterrence. We recognize the importance of survivability, of course, but between survivability and deterrence, I rate deterrence more important.” For the time being, General Davis suggested, only MX can be furnished with the combination of accuracy and yield required to hold at risk the new superhard silos housing Soviet ICBMs that “are the centerpiece” of their offensive strategic forces.

These new silos, he explained, are “significantly harder” than the best US silos. The most effective existing US weapons system, Minuteman III equipped with the Mk 12A RV, lacks the accuracy and yield to handle such superhard targets with a credible probability of kill (PK), and while the C-4 SLBMs are getting better, they, too, lack the lethality to dig out superhard targets, the head of SAC said.

Deployment of 100 MX ICBMs, as recommended by the Scowcroft Commission, on the other hand, will boost US deterrence considerably by assuring a level of destruction sufficient to curb Soviet strategic nuclear adventurism, according to General Davis. The proposed MX force does not represent a first strike force, however, because it lacks the numbers required for such as attack, General Davis said, adding that the combined force of MX and Minuteman ICBMs doesn’t give us the capability to take out [the Soviet ICBM force and associated command and control] in a first strike, but it can deter” a Soviet nuclear attack on the US.

Although firmly committed to moving strategic force modernization into high gear after a hiatus of more than a decade, the Strategic Air Command recognizes also the importance of maintaining the effectiveness and credibility of the existing strategic nuclear deterrence forces. Until the country is able to develop and deploy a new generation of strategic weapons, SAC’s top priority is to keep the B-52s, FB-111s, Minuteman IIs and IIIs, Titans, and tankers at levels of maximum efficiency, General Davis said.

“There is a far larger constituency for modernization than there is for fixing up old hardware. This just isn’t as glamorous,” he pointed out. Nevertheless, Congress agreed to support the B-52 avionics upgrade, and “we hope to get approval to fix the avionics of the FB-111s. Soon we will start with reengining the KC-135s with the CFM56 engines. Also, of course, we are integrating ALCM into [the B-52’s avionics suite] and, all importantly in the ICBM area, we are keeping Titan safe through several safety modifications until we phase all of them out by 1987,” according to General Davis.

Other important fixes involve the repouring of stage two and remanufacturing of stage three of the Minuteman II and III ICBMs, along with instituting new procedures whereby periodic maintenance is actually carried out at the silos. Claims to the contrary notwithstanding, General Davis averred, “Minuteman II is in good shape.” When these solid-propellant systems first went on line, the engineering community estimated that the propellant might start breaking down chemically and the liners might get sticky and deteriorate within about ten years.

“Well, they were about right. So we have started to rejuvenate them by repouring the second stages and remanufacturing the third stages. I have full confidence that with the repairs we are making they will last us and will remain reliable. Minuteman II certainly isn’t a wooden round even though a lot of people thought it was,” he pointed out.

SAC’s Commander in Chief was equally fervent in defending the B-52s against claims that these aircraft have become obsolete and hazardous to operate. Referring to an accident early this year at Mather AFB, Calif. that resulted in a ruptured wind – that in turn triggered considerable adverse publicity – General Davis explained that the B-52G and H models incorporate fuel tanks as integral structural members of their wings. The accident at Mather was caused by a plugged fuel tank went – in turn, the result of faulty maintenance – he said, adding that the subsequent failure of the wing “had nothing whatsoever to do with the age and structural integrity” of the airplane.

Since the B-52 entered the inventory, the aircraft has undergone three structural modifications that guarantee its “structural integrity well beyond the year 2000, General Davis stressed. It isn’t the notion that the B-52s are falling apart from old age that requires adjustments in its mission from penetration to standoff cruise missile launch once the B-1 enters the inventory, he pointed out: “Rather, the soviet defenses are getting better and better. By the late 1980s or early 1990s the B-52’s large radar cross section will leave no alternative but to [operate the aircraft only] in a standoff mode.”

Even though the air Force is shifting from the present generation of design – the advance cruise missile (ACM), which incorporates Stealth technology and a sizable range increase – SAC “has every confidence that the ALCM-B will continue to have a very high level of survivability.” General Davis believes. While ALCM-B lacks the low altitude at which it flies, and the fact that “we will route it around the high-threat areas,” promise to provide the system with a high level of survivability well into the 1990s, in General Davis’s view.

The pending shift to the “stealthy” cruise missile with a range of 2,000 miles – compared to the 1,500-mile-range ALCM-b – is largely a matter of taking advantage of new technologies to ensure long-term survivability, according to General Davis. Just as the Stealth, or advanced technology bomber (ATB) is meant to backstop the B-1, so will the advanced cruise missile augment the initial version of these weapons, he stressed.

General Davis said SAC does not see an immediate requirement for an intercontinental “stealthy” cruise missile. DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, is investigating the feasibility of such missiles. While a role for such a weapon may crop up eventually, he said thee are more pressing requirements in the strategic nuclear sector. One of these is development of a follow-on short-range attack missile (SRAM) with about three times the range and greater flexibility and capability than the existing system. The first-generation SRAMs, he warned, are getting old and the number of replacement motors is dwindling for these super-sonic, semi-ballistic missiles with a maximum range of about 100 miles.

From SAC’s point of view the timing of the development and acquisition of the B-1 and the ATB is sound. The acquisition of 100 B-1Bs, General Davis pointed out, will provide a significant boost in the nation’s nuclear deterrent capabilities beginning in 1986. Work on the advanced technology bomber, a program that involves both “known and unknown” technologies, is being carried out at “just the right pace, and I expect that it will come into inventory in the 1990s.”

He added that because Stealth bombers are radically different from existing aircraft, it will take some time for SAC to learn how to operate and maintain them with maximum effectiveness. Although ATB is expected to be a highly elusive target for SAMs and interceptors using radar for target detection, acquisition, and tracking, the aircraft is “optically” visible in daylight. As a result, finding ways of operating at low altitude that help the aircraft avoid Soviet air defense systems is of paramount importance.

Stressing that both the B-1 and the ATB utilize advance low-observable technology – the latter to a greater extent than the former – the head of the Strategic Air Command explained that the efficacy of strategic bombers of this type can be compounded through the use of decoys and other external countermeasures that capitalize on Stealth technology.

For SAC’s nuclear strategic forces to provide credible deterrence, it is imperative that a potential aggressor understand clearly that he can’t decapitate the command and control system that launches and targets these weapons. There is concern therefore, about possible attacks by Soviet bombers and cruise missiles on the US C3I system, including the National Command Authorities, as a precursor to a full-fledged strategic raid.

Modernization of the nation’s strategic command and control system now under way – and to be funded to the tune of more than $14 billion over the next five years – will probably create a C3 system with enough nodes “to make a precursor attack virtually impossible,” he suggested. Even though there is “no unanimity” within the scientific community about the effects of EMP (electromagnetic pulse) and other by-products of large nuclear bursts in the atmosphere on C3 systems, General Davis said SAC would be able to execute its strategic forces because of high redundancy in celestial and terrestrial communications links, including land-lines.

Washington Observations

ê US Army Chief of Staff General E. C. Meyer, just prior to his recent retirement, told this writer that he has “no problem whatsoever” with the Air Force, over time, assuming full responsibility for all strategic defensive operations. Once there is a “coherent addressal” of strategic defense – consonant with President Reagan’s recent recommendation – there “ought to be a command made up of Army and Air Force [elements] and I would be willing to give the responsibility for it to the Air Force. I believe such a command has to be centralized.”

Explaining that it would b extremely difficult to “develop the defense in the absence of the offense,” he suggested that effective defense against ballistic missiles is “so important to the future that you should assign it to somebody who is looking at it in its totality.” With the air Force likely to get the “largest share of the dollars” for this mission, he deemed it logical that t Army eventually would be taken out of the ballistic missile defense (BMD) business.

Concerning an unrelated issue affecting the two services, development of the C-17 for the intratheater airlift mission. General Meyer declared himself a “strong advocate of the C-17.” He termed development of such as aircraft “absolutely essential” for the kind of military involvement the United States is likely to get into in the future.

Although relatively optimistic about the C-17’s prospects, he said there “will have to be continued pressure by the Army as the spokesman for what’s needed in this area. The obstacles are as much political as they are military.”

ê Congressman Les Aspin (D-Wis.) chairman of the Military Personnel and Compensation Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee, told this writer that he soon will hold hearings on the military retirement system, emphasizing especially comparisons with private pensions systems, other government retirement plans, and military retirement systems of foreign countries. Acknowledging that the proposed actions by his subcommittee will amount to little more “thank stirring the pot,” he predicted Congress this yea is not likely to institute any major reforms of military retirement unless the Defense Department makes such a recommendation.

“What we are trying to do in these hearings is to get the Pentagon to [undertake] a serious and comprehensive reform. If that doesn’t work, I don’t think Congress really can pass a comprehensive reform.” Suggesting that the Defense Department is not likely to do so, he said his strategy would center on “piecemeal” actions such as making military personnel on active duty “contribute” toward their retired pay in the manner of the Civil Service.

In the nuclear strategic sector – where Congressman Aspin surprisingly emerged as somewhat o a guardian angel among liberal House Democrats of the strategic force modernization package drawn up by the Scowcroft Commission and endorsed by the White House – he expressed himself in favor “of some kind of throw-weight limitation” in the Strategic Arms Reductions Talks (START) to protect mobility single-warhead ICBMs from the threat of barrage bombings.

Without such a limit on Soviet thro-weight, “you could wind up with a barrage attack that would take out the small, single-warhead missiles even though they are scattered all over the military reservations,” he warned.