Amid North Korea cri­sis, Mat­tis fo­cuses on US dooms­day arse­nal

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

As North Korea flaunts its new nu­clear mus­cle, De­fense Sec­re­tary Jim Mat­tis is spot­light­ing the over­whelm­ing nu­mer­i­cal su­pe­ri­or­ity of Amer­ica’s dooms­day arse­nal. Yes­ter­day he is drop­ping in on ground zero of Amer­i­can nu­clear fire­power: Minot Air Force base in North Dakota, home to more than 100 land-based nu­clear mis­siles as well as nu­clear bomb-tot­ing air­craft. He also will re­ceive brief­ings at Strate­gic Com­mand, whose top of­fi­cer would com­mand nu­clear forces in war.

The vis­its were sched­uled be­fore a re­cent se­ries of North Korean nu­clear and mis­sile tests, but they give Mat­tis a chance to high­light what the Air Force touts as an al­ways-ready fleet of land-based mis­siles and B-52 bombers equipped to de­liver nu­clear dev­as­ta­tion to nearly any point on the globe in short or­der. Minot and Strate­gic Com­mand head­quar­ters at Of­futt Air Force Base in Ne­braska also are timely back­drops for a re­lated po­lit­i­cal mes­sage:

The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion in­tends to press ahead with a multi­bil­lion-dol­lar mod­ern­iza­tion of the en­tire nu­clear arse­nal. The Pen­tagon is in the midst of an in-depth re­view of nu­clear weapons pol­icy, but it seems al­ready clear that up­grad­ing the Cold War-era nu­clear force is a fore­gone con­clu­sion. Last month the Pen­tagon sig­naled its in­ten­tions by award­ing two key con­tracts. One was to Northrop Grum­man and Boe­ing, to­tal­ing nearly $700 mil­lion, for fur­ther de­vel­op­ment of an in­ter­con­ti­nen­tal bal­lis­tic mis­sile, or ICBM, to re­place the Min­ute­man 3.

The other was to Lock­heed Martin and Raytheon for $1.8 bil­lion to work on a new nu­clear-armed, air-launched cruise mis­sile. The Air Force also is pro­ceed­ing with de­vel­op­ment of a next-gen­er­a­tion nu­clear-ca­pa­ble bomber, dubbed the B-21 Raider, and the Navy is build­ing a new fleet of strate­gic nu­clear sub­marines. How this fits into the broader de­fense bud­get in com­ing years is un­clear. Kingston Reif, a nu­clear pol­icy spe­cial­ist at the Arms Con­trol As­so­ci­a­tion, says his anal­y­sis of bud­get fig­ures sug­gests that the to­tal cost over 30 years could ap­proach $1.5 tril­lion, when ad­just­ing for in­fla­tion.

“The cur­rent ap­proach ex­ceeds what is nec­es­sary for de­ter­rence and as­sumes that the United States will main­tain a nu­clear arse­nal like the one it has now for decades to come,” Reif said, not­ing the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion had de­ter­mined that the nu­clear arse­nal could be cut fur­ther with­out sac­ri­fic­ing se­cu­rity. Air Force Sec­re­tary Heather Wilson said on Mon­day that there is no prac­ti­cal al­ter­na­tive to mod­ern­iz­ing the force. “At some point, stuff just breaks,” she said, re­fer­ring to the Min­ute­man 3, which was first de­ployed in 1970. “The ma­te­ri­als just are not able to be main­tained any­more.”

Mat­tis in re­cent weeks has all but dis­missed the idea - he him­self raised it in con­gres­sional tes­ti­mony two years ago that the coun­try might be bet­ter off elim­i­nat­ing the ICBM fleet. In June, the Air Force fin­ished re­duc­ing the num­ber of Min­ute­man 3 mis­siles by 50 to a to­tal of 400, the low­est since 1962. But Mat­tis ap­pears to have been per­suaded by the ar­gu­ment that keep­ing ICBMs de­ployed in un­der­ground si­los sprin­kled across the western Great Plains is key to de­ter­rence be­cause an at­tacker would have to use hun­dreds of weapons to de­stroy all 400 launch fa­cil­i­ties.

“It’s go­ing to soak up a lot” of an en­emy’s arse­nal, he said last month, re­fer­ring to the Min­ute­man launch sites in North Dakota, Mon­tana, Wy­oming, Colorado and Ne­braska. Be­cause th­ese are fixed sites known to an ad­ver­sary, they are eas­ily tar­geted, although per­haps not eas­ily de­stroyed. Minot hosts the 91st Mis­sile Wing, which op­er­ates one-third of the na­tion’s 400 Min­ute­man 3 mis­siles, as well as the 5th Bomb Wing, which flies nu­clear-ca­pa­ble B-52 bombers.

Minot in re­cent years was at the cen­ter of trou­ble in the ICBM force, in­clud­ing lapses in morale, train­ing, per­for­mance and man­age­ment. The Air Force has made an ef­fort since 2014 to cor­rect those weak­nesses, which had ac­cu­mu­lated over a pe­riod of years, with lit­tle at­ten­tion from Congress. Mat­tis him­self has been some­thing of a nu­clear skep­tic. Pen­tagon lead­ers usu­ally are cheer­lead­ers for the nu­clear es­tab­lish­ment, in part be­cause it has been at the heart of US se­cu­rity strat­egy for many decades and in part be­cause it is po­lit­i­cally un­pop­u­lar to ques­tion the way that es­tab­lish­ment man­ages the nu­clear force. —AP

WASH­ING­TON: In this file photo, De­fense Sec­re­tary Jim Mat­tis lis­tens on Capi­tol Hill in Wash­ing­ton, while tes­ti­fy­ing be­fore the Se­nate Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee hear­ing on the Pen­tagon’s bud­get.—AFP

Eas­ily tar­geted, not eas­ily de­stroyed

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