Navy Vice Adm. Bill Burke's first operational tour during his career was on the submarine, the Lafayette, with the mission of conducting strategic deterrence patrols focused on the United States' adversary: the Soviet Union.
"To this day, strategic deterrence continues to be the foundation upon which the rest of our national defense posture resides. Each leg has a unique role in our deterrence position.
"For all their differences, each leg of our triad has one aspect in common: each faces service life extensions that are necessary and also need to be minimized in cost," Burke said.
Maj. Gen. Garrett Harencak, assistant U.S. Air Force chief of staff for Strategic Deterrence and Nuclear Integration at Air Force Headquarters in Washington, D.C., said, “We have to be really, really careful how quickly we give away capability that has been bought and paid for over the last 50 or 60 years, and my job is to make sure we actually have a debate on that.”
Burke, deputy chief of naval operations for warfare systems, was one of about a dozen high-level experts on the nuclear triad speaking at a symposium, "Sustaining the Triad: The Enduring Requirement of Deterrence," held May 3 in The Grand Hotel, Minot.
The day before, participants toured Minot Air Force Base, home to two legs of the triad: Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles and B-52 bombers. The Navy's submarine-launched ballistic missiles are the third leg of the triad.
The symposium was hosted by the Minot Area Chamber of Commerce and Task Force 21, Minot's base retention committee.
Burke said the Ohio class SSBNs have been in operation since 1981. "We maintain the Ohio class at a very high state of readiness to assure its operational availability much like you and the bomber and ICBM force," he told the group that included military members from Minot AFB. "Those operational availability numbers are well into the high 90s."
He said they've been able to extend the life of the Ohio class for an additional 12 years. "We planned them to 30 (years), we're going to get them to 42," he said. But he said that's probably as far as they can go with the Ohio class.
"If we go to 42 years, that will be 25 percent longer than any other nuclear submarine," Burke said.
He said it takes about 20 years to actually design and build most of the ships and they've been on that journey with the SSBN for a number of years already.
"Both Navy and STRATCOM leadership believe there is a moderate operational risk associated with our plan and further delays should not be considered," Burke said.
He said they were to begin construction of the lead ship beginning in fiscal year 2019, providing a two-year margin to account for any potential construction challenges but due to fiscal constraints that's been pushed back to fiscal year 2021.
Burke and other presenters weighed in at the symposium on the sustainment of the nuclear triad the Air Force's ICBMs and bombers, and the Navy's submarine-launched ballistic missiles.
Maj. Gen. Garrett Harencak, assistant U.S. Air Force chief of staff for Strategic Deterrence and Nuclear Integration at Air Force Headquarters in Washington, D.C., said the Minuteman III ICBM will go to 2030. He said the youngest bomber, the B-2, already is 20 years old.
Harencak said his son is with the 69th Bomb Squadron, a Minot AFB B-52 unit, and is flying the same airplane that he flew in the 1980s. The plane has upgrades.
"These airplanes have to be recapitalized. We have to spend the money to do what's necessary on our weapon systems," Harencak said.
"Regardless of the commitment and how much money and time we spend into upgrading the bomber fleet, we're going to need a long-range strike (bomber). We're going to have to do that and that's just fact of life. We will keep our legacy bombers going, we're going to upgrade, we're going to do great things and all sorts of stuff but at the end of the day it's actually vital that we do a long-range strike bomber," he said.
When two B-52s recently were sent over the North Korea peninsula, Harencak said he was testifying on Capitol Hill that day. He said a congressional member came up to him and in their conversation, asked him about having B-52s and other bombers, and why the U.S. needs a long-range strike bomber.
"The simple fact is if you don't have it, you never want to be that person who walks into the Oval Office and says: 'I'm sorry we cannot take out that threat Mr. President or Madam President.' And our children and our grandchildren are now at risk. That's why we need a long-range bomber," he said.
Harencak said these systems have been bought and paid for by previous generations and all of them are "an incredible value."
He added, "We have to be really, really careful how quickly we give away a capability that has been bought and paid for over the last 50 or 60 years, and my job is to make sure that we actually have a debate on that," Harencak said. "We need to actually talk and discuss and make perfectly clear what we're going to lose as we continue if we go down a path as some people say we need to."
He said Air Force Global Strike Command's budget in fiscal year 2012 was $4.9 billion for two legs of the triad (ICBMS and bombers).
"That's a lot of money. In the same timeframe, the United States Postal Service lost $5.1 billion," he said. He said he wasn't picking on the postal service but his point is triad legs are a bargain.
Harencak said one of the greatest myths is the country can't afford it. "We can't afford what to protect America?" Harencak asked.
Retired Lt. Gen. Frank Klotz, senior fellow for strategic studies and arms control at the Council on Foreign Relations, said this month marks the fourth anniversary of President Obama's widely acclaimed speech in Prague in 2009.
"In the course of his remarks he expressed America's commitment to see the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons," Klotz said. He said the president also laid out a fairly specific agenda for moving toward that goal including the completion of three treaties, including the New Strategic Arms Control Agreement (New START) with Russia to replace the START I treaty.
With the 2012 election now behind, the Obama administration appears intent with moving forward with the Prague agenda, Klotz said.
"For this agenda to go forward in the second term will obviously depend upon the state of Russia/U.S. relations, and if recent events are any guide, the prognosis for the immediate future is not very encouraging.
"But it will also depend upon achieving a greater degree of consensus on nuclear weapons and arms control policies within the U.S.," he said.
Klotz was the first commander of Air Force Global Strike Command. His military career included commanding the 91st Missile Group/91st Missile Wing at Minot AFB.
Klotz noted that even though the ICBMs are the least expensive leg of the triad to operate and maintain, it might ultimately be the most vulnerable since the need to replace the existing Minuteman III missiles in the 2025 to 2030 range will follow right on the heels of an investment in a new ballistic missile submarine and a new long-range strike bomber.
"Nevertheless, the triad still has intrinsic value even at and especially at lower numbers but continued to provide a balance and mix of desirable operational attribute," Klotz said. Among the benefits of the triad, he said, includes it mitigates against the risk of the failure of a single warhead or delivery system.
He said the triad should be retained and each leg of the triad should be replaced when it reaches the end of its service life. "However, alternative approaches and configurations should be considered in future systems as a means of enhancing safety and security, reducing life cycle costs and preserving strategic stability," Klotz said. He said as important as the triad may be to this national security strategy, it must also be affordable and that is one of the challenges congressional leaders, local communities and others will face in the future years.
Retired Maj. Gen. Don Alston, of Cheyenne, Wyo., former commander of 20th Air Force, said, "As the capability of our weapons and systems and the confidency of our people are measured and found credible, friends and allies are assured they do not pursue their own weapons programs and potential adversaries are dissuaded from acquiring nuclear weapons, and those who posses weapons are sufficiently deterred from risky behaviors that could escalate to nuclear attacks."
Alston noted, "It's been nearly 60 years since the last hostile detonation of a nuclear weapon. It's a remarkable record."
From the ICBM side, Alston said sustaining the highly visible, homeland-based, stability-sized, alert-postured ICBM force provides the nation a vital first-strike deterrent force essential.
He said the U.S. has absolute challenges in front of it right now and that it needs to preserve the credibility of the force, and the credibility of the force is contingent upon capable systems and competent people together with effective deterrence every day.
Ron Lehman II, director of the Center for Global Security Research at the Department of Energy's Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, Calif., said the bottom line is things are changing very rapidly. "We need to be prepared for surprise geopolitical, technological, strategic and that there are strategies for dealing with surprise, and one of those is to have a diverse set of options so that you can remix and reoptimize according to changes over time."
A former U.S. ambassador, Lehman pointed out how changes can occur very rapidly and technology can turn things around very quickly, giving an example of the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota and other states in this region, and that this area is instrumental in moving up the U.S. to becoming energy independent within a decade or two.
In regard to the triad, he said, "It is a reflection of the fact that diversity is an important tool for dealing with surprise." Lehman said adversaries influence it and people are becoming increasingly aware of that. He noted each of the legs of the triad has its advantages and its disadvantages.
"Above all, we've got to recognize we need to bring costs down but the cost is not about the budget level, although we have to meet that. The measure of merit is not cost per warhead, it's cost per unit of national security. We need a better, smarter way to think about that," he said. With advance analysis techniques, diverse marketplaces of ideas, etc., he said, "I think we can come up with a more affordable way to maintain diversity."
Lehman said the U.S. allies don't fully accept the notion that nuclear weapons are no longer relevant and, in fact, "if they don't have ours, they will be prepared to develop theirs which adds to a more complicated world."
Linton Brooks, a senior adviser at the Center for Stratetgic & International Studies in Washington, D.C., and a former U.S. ambassador, said if there is a threat to the triad, it's the ICBM because the nonnuclear community always focuses on the ICBM.
"They know if every nuclear weapon vanished tomorrow, we wouldn't reduce the bomber force at all because the bomber force serves other important conventional missions, so they focus on the ICBM leg. But the fact that anti- nuclear advocates say something doesn't turn what they say into policy," said Brooks.
Brooks said there's been a huge flurry of excitement in Washington, D.C., about last year's Global Zero report. "It's not what the report says the report says what the anti-nuclear community had to say for a long time it's for the names put on the cover of the report," noting the report included Gen. James E. "Hoss" Cartwright, retired vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and former commander of U.S. Strategic Command.
Brooks said the report advocates eliminating ICBMs.
"Frankly, I think this says a lot more about the broken state of intellectual discussion in Washington than it says about strategic plans so let me just say there is no near term politically relevant assault on the triad."
Brooks told the group that ICBMS are stabilizing and it would take more warheads to attack them than would be destroyed.
He also said dollars are policy. "If you want to understand the policy of the United States, back in my day, you would look at the annual budgets. Now that we have abandoned the annual budgets, you would look at the continuing resolution."
Brooks said when the time comes to replace Minuteman III there is going to be an argument primarily based on what the international circumstances are and money will play a part.
Members of North Dakota's congressional delegation were among the speakers at the symposium.
Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., reiterated what other presenters said earlier that day, that "Today's unpredictable and chaotic global security environment strongly suggests we're going to need to rely on the triad for a long time into the future."
He said there's so many more players now, naming countries including Russia, China, Pakistan, North Korea and possibly Iran.
Hoeven is a member of the U.S. Senate Committee on Appropriations and and Military Construction, Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies Subcommittee. Last month he announced that he opposed recent efforts by the Obama administration to reduce nuclear missile silos.
He said nuclear weapons are a bargain in the budget for this country, and the cost of the triad in any given year amounts to less than 5 percent of the defense budget and less than 2 percent of overall federal spending.
Hoeven emphasized the importance of securing appropriate levels of support for strategic deterrence in Washington's ongoing budget debate amidst sequestration.
He noted the president's budget calls for an Environmental Impact Assessment of ICBM bases, which suggests that the president is considering further reductions of the nuclear force beyond the requirements of the New START agreement, the nuclear arms reduction treaty agreed to by the U.S. and Russia. This EIS should not be funded and we should retain all of our missile silos in warm status, even where New START requires us to get rid of missiles, Hoeven said.
He said additional reductions to the nuclear forces should not even be considered until New START is fully implemented and the administration should not take steps to reduce the nuclear forces without first consulting the Senate.
He also said the president's budget requests more than $500 million less in funding than pledged by the administration for updating the nuclear weapons program. "This would further harm the effort to sustain and modernize our warheads. We must accelerate the modernization process or we will eventually lack safe, reliable, effective and credible warheads, inside our submarines, bombers and missiles," Hoeven said.
Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., told the group that the Minot community never waits to be on defense.
"You're always preparing for the argument before the argument is made, and you do it not only in protection of your community and assets but in defense of our country the higher calling of all of it," he said. He said it takes everyone being involved.
Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., who spoke to the group by teleconference, said the global security landscape is rapidly changing and now more than ever global security is dependent on the capabilities of the triad and the deterrent strategy it provides, not only for those at home but also the allies across the world. She said that requires the nuclear triad is maintained and modernized.
She said ultimately the nation's strategic deterrent is primarily to prevent wars.
Robert Joseph, senior fellow at the National Institute for Public Policy and a former U.S. ambassador who is originally from Williston, and Lt. Gen. James Kowalski, commander of Air Force Global Strike Command, also were presenters at the symposium.
Peter Huessy, president of GeoStrategic Analysis in Potomac, Md., has hosted 1,700 seminars on Capitol Hill. He said future symposiums like the one held in Minot will be held in the future at other sites in the country.
About 140 people from across the country attended the Minot symposium, including civilians from communities near military installations with legs of the nuclear triad.
(More information about the symposium will be published next week.)
(Editor's note: A media report was issued this past week that 17 Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile launch crew members at Minot Air Force Base earlier were removed from their duties for at least two months because of various failings and are undergoing more training. Officials said there was no compromise of missile safety or security.)