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A joint Navy-Air Force ballistic missile?

Tomorrow’s lean defense budgets may force the military services to do something once unthinkable, the Navy’s top strategic weapons planner said Thursday: Cooperate on designing a new nuclear missile.

Rear Adm. Terry Benedict, head of the Navy's strategic systems programs, told attendees at the Naval Submarine League conference outside Washington that U.S. strategic forces eventually will need new nuclear ballistic missiles. The Navy and Air Force can sustain their current fleets of Tridents and Minutemen for the next few decades of the 21st century, but they won’t last forever.

He characterized the situation in the same way we heard Air Force Secretary Michael Donley broach a new Air Force One earlier this year: This isn’t a problem we need to resolve today, but given the amounts of time and money it takes for these things to pay off, the sooner DoD gets cracking, the better. So Benedict said he already has.

“We’re not waiting around for aging to overtake us,” he said. For now, the Navy plans on a life-extension upgrade for its Trident D-5 submarine-launched ballistic missiles. They’ll go to sea in around 2017, as the “Trident D-5 LE,” and meanwhile, he has already begun to talk to people inside the Building about a new, common ballistic missile.

“I’m not waiting around to be told how to do my job. We currently have collaboration efforts with the Air Force,” Benedict said. He described how officials are looking at a common fuse for the Minuteman’s W78 warhead and the Trident’s W88; common guidance systems R&D, common propulsion R&D; electronic systems; ordnance; tooling and so on.

“I believe that some degree of commonality in parts between current and future missile systems is possible, and you can look at that from aspects of suppliers, land and ships systems, missile systems and components. They offer the greatest possibility for cost savings,” Benedict said.

The defense budgets of Austerity America just will not support separate, parallel new missiles for the Air Force and Navy, Benedict said. That doesn’t mean that a new ICBM has to be identical to a new SLBM – in fact, there are compelling reasons not to use the same missiles, in case a failure or weakness in one means the entire U.S. strategic deterrent is compromised. Still, an overall joint effort is a compelling way to go, he argued, and soon.

“This is not a decision we can postpone through 2020 or 2030 – this is a near-term decision that will affect sustainment and recapitalization,” Benedict said.

The two big milestones on the horizon are the Air Force’s plan to retire the Minutemen by around 2030 and the Navy’s plan to retire its D-5 LE missiles by around 2040. But having a new inter-service missile ready to take the watch by then could be a steep uphill climb:

First, as defense analysts never tire of pointing out, much of the U.S. nuclear weapons industrial base is gone. It could be difficult and expensive to build new missiles and very difficult and very expensive to build new warheads. Second, not everyone in the national leadership is as enamored of nuclear weapons as strategic forces airmen and sailors.

Although the storyline at Sub League was etched in granite – Only A Kook is Afraid of a Nuke, to borrow a phrase from another time and place – how might it look to Americans and the world if Washington began building a new generation of nuclear weapons? President Obama broke a lot of china last year trying to get the Senate to ratify the New START treaty, and he and many other world leaders want to eliminate nuclear weapons altogether.

Inside the nuke family, however, that view is considered laughable. On Wednesday, former Strategic Command boss retired Adm. Rich Mies excoriated “Countdown to Zero” types, almost mocking abolitionists’ dream of a nuke-free world. Peace, he said? You like peace? What do you think has prevented a major global conflict since World War II? It ain’t the milk of human kindness – it’s the threat of massive retaliation. If the Nobel committee wants to give a prize to the people who’ve done the most for peace, it should award it to the troops of America’s strategic forces, Mies said. That is not a joke.

So the broken record is about to get stuck again: The U.S. needs to make a strategic decision soon about the future of its nuclear arsenal. Benedict was asked about the possibility of going to a nuclear dyad, and he said the White House and StratCom are reviewing all that right now, though OSD has been mostly kept out of it. Their findings could begin to inform decisions about the future of the U.S. nuclear posture.

What do you think – should the U.S. plan on maintaining its full nuclear deterrence for the long haul? Should the Navy and Air Force collaborate on a new missile?

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