By Loren Thompson*
Predicting the defense priorities of a new administration, especially one that hasn’t yet taken office, is a risky business. Although Joe Biden has a long and fairly consistent track record on national security, the fallout from a global pandemic and disrupted economy may drive changes in military plans that few observers are expecting.
New weapons often bear the brunt of such shifts, because it is easier to delay programs that haven’t made their way into the force. Warfighters are less likely to miss capabilities they don’t already have, and political constituencies are less likely to be upset by the loss of jobs that don’t already exist.
However, this commentary is about four new weapons programs that aren’t going away, and will likely come to define the Biden defense posture. None of the programs listed below has entered the joint force, and yet each is so central to the way Joe Biden and Democrats in general think about defense that they are sure to survive.
The Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine. From his earliest days in the Senate, Joe Biden has always been a believer in nuclear deterrence. The key feature of America’s deterrence strategy is that rather than trying to defend the nation against a Russian or Chinese nuclear attack, the U.S. maintains the ability to launch overwhelming, horrific retaliation against any aggressor. Thus, there is no sane logic to launching an attack.
The strategy requires a secure retaliatory force that can survive any attack and then respond in a manner proportionate to the provocation. Ballistic missile submarines are central to this strategy because unlike bombers and land-based missiles, when they are on patrol they can’t be targeted in a surprise attack. Today, about two-thirds of the warheads in the U.S. strategic arsenal are carried on 14 Ohio-class subs.
However, those subs must begin retiring at the end of the decade, and the Columbia class of ballistic missile subs was conceived during the Obama years to replace them. The lead ship will be delivered to the Navy by prime contractor General Dynamics in 2027 and conduct its first deterrence patrol in 2031. Columbia will be the biggest sub ever built in the U.S.
That doesn’t mean it will carry the most warheads. To comply with arms control agreements, Columbia will have 16 tubes for launching its long-range ballistic missiles rather than Ohio’s 24. But each of the D5 missiles manufactured by Lockheed Martin will carry multiple, independently targetable warheads capable of destroying virtually any enemy asset.
This is a formidable deterrent: a single Columbia-class sub could destroy most of the major cities in Russia, and the Navy will eventually have 12 such boats. The Navy only needs 12 to provide the deterrent effect of 14 Ohio’s, because the nuclear core of the Columbia’s propulsion system lasts for 40 years—eliminating the need for a time-consuming midlife refueling. There is zero likelihood that President Biden will delay or scale back the Columbia program.
The B-21 Raider long-range bomber. Like the sea-based leg of the deterrent, the airborne leg is in need of modernization. All of the heavy bombers in the current Air Force fleet will gradually lose their ability to penetrate defended air space in the years ahead, and there are some targets that cannot destroyed from outside said air space using air-launched cruise missiles. The B-21, also conceived during the Obama years, will replace the B-1 and B-2 bombers with a penetrating, long-range strike aircraft that can hold any target in the world at risk.
The main virtue of bombers in a deterrent force is that they can be recalled or retargeted after launch if circumstances dictate. That isn’t feasible with ballistic missiles. But B-21 isn’t just a strategic deterrent, it will also be a conventional bomber capable of carrying a wide array of smart munitions. A combination of low observable (“stealth”) technology and agile electronic warfare systems will make it nearly impossible to track or intercept.
Raider is part of a family of systems the Air Force has developed for future global strike missions. Like the bomber, other parts of this family are secret. But B-21 is the centerpiece, and it is pivotal to the future effectiveness of the joint force across the full spectrum of warfare. Here too, there is zero chance President Biden will scale back the program. It is more likely Biden will increase the planned buy.
B-21 is pivotal in another way. The lead aircraft being assembled by prime contractor Northrop Grumman NOC +1.8% in Palmdale, California using Pratt & Whitney engines derived from the F-35 fighter is utilizing a host of cutting-edge production techniques. These include digital engineering, agile software development and rapid prototyping. The bomber thus will fit easily into the new administration’s efforts to emphasize innovation in its military investment strategy. The new techniques will drastically reduce the cost of building and maintaining each bomber.
The Marine CH-53K King Stallion Helicopter. Over the last generation, the U.S. Marine Corps has transformed its aviation branch by introducing the MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor and the F-35B vertical takeoff fighter. These aircraft deliver unprecedented agility to a ground force that has long styled itself as the military’s first responders. Combined with basing at sea, the aircraft enable Marines to respond quickly to crises virtually anywhere.
There is only one item missing from this picture: a cargo helicopter capable of lifting the latest tactical vehicles a hundred miles from amphibious ships offshore into a war zone. The CH-53K King Stallion, begun during the Obama administration, meets this requirement with the most capable cargo helicopter in the world. Not only will it be able to lift more weight than any other rotorcraft in history, but CH-53K will be cheaper to maintain and better protected against hostile fire than the helicopter it replaces.
The value of operating such an aircraft will grow as the Marines position to deter Chinese aggression in the Western Pacific. In addition to growing the size of their amphibious fleet the Marines plan to move forces among islands off the Chinese coast in a way that Beijing can not easily anticipate or counter. That will necessitate lifting anti-ship weapons, tactical vehicles and other materiel on short notice, and some of these items will be too bulky for transport by existing rotorcraft.
With an unrefueled combat radius of 130 miles and superior performance in “high-hot” conditions, the 200 King Stallions the Marine Corps plans to buy from Lockheed Martin’s Sikorsky unit will be a game-changer, and not just in the Pacific. Sikorsky expects to begin delivering production aircraft to the Corps during Joe Biden’s first year in office, further enhancing the flexibility of the world’s premier amphibious force.
Unmanned surface and undersea warships. Earlier this month, an experimental surface vessel developed for the U.S. Navy completed a 5,400-mile mission from the Gulf Coast to California, transiting the Panama Canal. What’s unusual about this is that almost the entire mission was conducted autonomously, meaning without human intervention. The experimental vessel was unmanned, part of an expanding Navy investment in robotic surface and undersea vessels.
Navy leaders have decided that increased use of unmanned systems is the only affordable way to cover all of the missions their service has been assigned around the world. While manned warships will remain the core warfighting assets of America’s Navy, it simply isn’t practical to address all missions with a destroyer or attack sub. The Navy needs less expensive means of accomplishing the most dangerous or tedious missions such as laying mines or searching for hostile subs, and it is developing a family of unmanned ships that can one day accomplish those tasks.
This concept is certain to appeal to a Biden security team intent on accelerating military innovation, in much the same way that unmanned aircraft appealed to the Obama security team. Boeing for instance, is under contract to build five robotic submarines based on its Echo Voyager prototype that will have very long endurance, very deep diving capabilities, and diverse, modular payloads. Leidos developed an autonomous surface vessel called Sea Hunter with transoceanic range and the potential to perform diverse missions, from mine countermeasures to offensive antisubmarine warfare.
It isn’t hard to grasp the utility of unmanned warships. They cost a fraction of what manned vessels do to build and operate, while greatly amplifying the capacity of the manned fleet. For instance, Hudson Institute figures it costs over $100 million per month to operate a naval antisubmarine force in the North Atlantic. Unmanned warships have the potential to multiply the coverage of such a force for a modest additional increment of money. With federal borrowing at record rates, the Biden administration has a strong incentive to pursue unmanned alternatives to traditional warfighting concepts.
*Loren Thompson focuses on the strategic, economic and business implications of defense spending as the Chief Operating Officer of the non-profit Lexington Institute and Chief Executive Officer of Source Associates.