Hey, cheer up because it truly is a beauty! I’m talking about this country’s latest “stealth bomber,” the B-21 Raider, just revealed by Northrop Grumman, the company that makes it, in all its glory. With its striking bat-winged shape and its ability to deliver a very big bang (as in nuclear weapons), it’s our very own “bomber of the future.” As Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin put it at its explosive debut, it will “fortify America’s ability to deter aggression, today and into the future.” Now, that truly makes me proud to be an American.
And while you’re at it, on this MAD (as in mutually assured destruction) world of ours, let that scene, that peculiar form of madness, involving the potential end of everything on Planet Earth, sink in. As a retired Air Force officer, it reminded me all too vividly of my former service and brought to mind the old motto of the Strategic Air Command (SAC), “Peace Is Our Profession.” Headed in its proudest years by the notorious General Curtis LeMay, it promised “peace” via the threat of the total nuclear annihilation of America’s enemies.
SAC long controlled two “legs” of this country’s nuclear triad: its land-based bombers and intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs. During the Cold War, those Titans, Minutemen, and MX “Peacekeepers” were kept on constant alert, ready to pulverize much of the planet at a moment’s notice. It didn’t matter that this country was likely to be pulverized, too, in any war with the Soviet Union. What mattered was remaining atop the nuclear pile. A concomitant benefit was keeping conventional wars from spinning out of control by threatening the nuclear option or, as was said at the time, “going nuclear.” (In the age of Biden, it’s “Armageddon.”)
Luckily, since the atomic destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, the world hasn’t gone nuclear again and yet this country’s military continues, with the help of weapons makers like Northrop Grumman, to hustle down that very path to Armageddon. Once upon a time, the absurdity of all this was captured by Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece, the satirical 1964 film Dr. Strangelove, which featured a “war room” in which there was no fighting, even as its occupants oversaw a nuclear doomsday. Sadly enough, that movie still seems eerily relevant nearly 60 years later in a world lacking the Soviet Union, where the threat of nuclear war nonetheless looms ever larger. What gives?
The short answer is that America’s leaders, like their counterparts in Russia and China, seem to have a collective death wish, a shared willingness to embrace the most violent and catastrophic weapons in the name of peace.
Nuclear Bombers and ICBMs Return!
There’s nothing magical about the nuclear triad. It’s not the Holy “Trinity,” as a congressman from Florida said long ago. Even so, it’s worshipped by the U.S. military in its own all-too-expensive fashion. America’s triad consists of bombers capable of carrying nuclear weapons (B-52s, B-1s, B-2s, and someday B-21s), those land-based ICBMs, and that most survivable “leg,” the U.S. Navy’s Trident-missile-firing submarines. No other country has a triad quite as impressive (if that’s the word for it), nor is any other country planning to spend up to $2 trillion over the next three decades “modernizing” it. The Air Force, of course, controls the first two legs of that triad and isn’t about to give them up just because they’re redundant to America’s “defense” (given those submarines), while constituting a threat to life on this planet.
Four years ago, when I first wrote about the B-21, its estimated cost was $550 million per plane, but you know the story, right? The F-35 was supposed to be a low-cost, multi-role fighter jet. A generation later, by the Air Force’s own admission, it’s now a staggeringly expensive “Ferrari” of a plane, sexy in appearance but laden with flaws. Naturally, the B-21 is advertised as a multi-role bomber that can carry “conventional” or non-nuclear munitions as well as thermonuclear ones, but its main reason for being is its alleged ability to put nuclear bombs on target, even without Slim Pickens (“Major Kong” in Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove) riding down on one of them.
The main arguments for expensive nuclear bombers are that they can be launched as a show of resolve but also, unlike missiles, recalled, if necessary. (Or so we hope anyway.) They have a “man in the loop” for greater targeting flexibility and so complicate the enemy’s defensive planning. Such arguments may have made some sense in the 1950s and early 1960s, before ICBMs and their sub-launched equivalents were fully mature technologies, but they’re stuff and nonsense today. If nuclear-capable nations like Russia and China aren’t already deterred by the hundreds of missiles with thousands of highly accurate nuclear warheads in America’s possession, they’re not about to be deterred by a few dozen, or even 100, new B-21 stealth bombers, no matter the recent Hollywood-style hype about them.
A reader at my Bracing Views Substack, a Vietnam veteran, nailed it when he described his own reaction to the B-21’s unveiling:
“What struck me in my heart (fortunately, I have a great pacemaker) was the self-assured, almost condescending demeanor of the Secretary [of Defense], the Hollywood staging and lighting, and the complete absence of consideration of what cognitive/emotional/moral injuries might be inflicted on the viewer, never mind experiencing exposure to the actual bomber and its payload — add in the incredible cost and use of taxpayer money for a machine and support system that can never actually be used, or if used, would produce incalculable destruction of people and planet; again, never mind how all that could have been used to start making America into a functioning social democracy instead of a declining, tottering empire.”
Social democracy? Perish the thought. The U.S. economy is propped up by a militarized Keynesianism tightly embraced by Congress and whatever administration is in the White House. So, no matter how unnecessary those bombers may be, no matter how their costs spiral ever upwards, they’re likely to endure. Look for them flying over a sports stadium near you, perhaps in 2030 — if, that is, we’re still alive as a species.
As the Air Force buys new stealth bombers with your tax dollars, they also plan to purchase a new generation of ICBMs, or a “ground-based strategic deterrent” in Newspeak, to plant in missile silos in garden spots like rural Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, and Wyoming. The Air Force has had ICBMs since the 1960s. Roughly 1,000 of them (though that service initially requested 10,000) were kept on high alert well into the 1980s. Today’s ICBM force is smaller, but ever more expensive to maintain due to its age. It’s also redundant, thanks to the Navy’s more elusive and survivable nuclear deterrent. But, again, logic doesn’t matter here. Whether needed or not, the Air Force wants those new land-based missiles just like those stealth bombers and Congress is all too willing to fund them in your name.
Ka-ching! But hopefully not ka-boom!
Just as the purchase price for the B-21 project is expected to start at $100 billion (but will likely far exceed that), the new ICBMs, known as Sentinels, are also estimated to cost $100 billion. It brings to mind an old saying (slightly updated): a hundred billion here, a hundred billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking real money. In a case of egregious double-dipping, Northrop Grumman is once again the lead contractor, having recently opened a $1.4 billion facility to design the new missile in Colorado Springs, conveniently close to the Air Force Academy and various other Air and Space Force facilities. Location, location, location!
Why such nuclear folly? The usual reasons, of course. Building genocidal missiles creates jobs. It’s a boon and a half for the industrial part of the military-industrial-congressional complex. It’s considered “healthy” for the communities where those missiles will be located, rural areas that would suffer economically if the Air Force bases there were instead dismantled or decommissioned. For that service, shiny new ICBMs are a budget bonanza, while helping to ensure that the real “enemy” — and yes, I have the U.S. Navy in mind — won’t end up with a monopoly on world-ending weaponry.
In the coming decades, expect those “Sentinels” to be planted in fields far from where most Americans live under the guiding principle that, if we keep them out of sight, they’ll be out of mind as well. Yet I can’t help but think that this country’s military is out of its mind in “planting” them there when the only harvest can be of mass death.
It’s a MAD Old World
As MAD magazine’s Alfred E. Neuman would undoubtedly have said, “What, me worry?”
Oh, MAD old world that has such nukes in it! Color me astonished, in fact, that America’s nuclear weapons mix hasn’t changed much since the 1960s. That sort of world-ending persistence should tell us something, but what exactly? For one thing, that not enough of us can imagine a brave new world without genocidal nuclear weapons in it.
In 1986, President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev actually did so. They came close, in fact, to reaching a deal to eliminate nuclear weapons. Sadly, Reagan proved reluctant to abandon his dream of a nuclear space shield, then popularly known as “Star Wars” or, more formally, as the Strategic Defense Initiative. Since Reagan, sadly enough, U.S. presidents have stayed the course on nukes. Most disappointingly, the Nobel Prize-winning Barack Obama spoke of eliminating them, supported by former Cold War stalwarts like Henry Kissinger and George Schultz, only to abandon that goal, partly to solidify support in the Senate for a nuclear deal with Iran that, no less sadly, is itself pretty much dead and buried today.
If saintly Reagan and saintly Obama couldn’t do it, what hope do ordinary Americans have of ending our nuclear MADness? Well, to quote a real saint, Catholic peace activist Dorothy Day, “Our problems stem from our acceptance of this filthy, rotten system.” It’s hard to think of a system more filthy or rotten than one that threatens to destroy most life on our planet, so that this country could in some fashion “win” World War III.
Win what, exactly? A burnt cinder of a planet?
Look, I’ve known airmen who’ve piloted nuclear bombers. I’ve known missileers responsible for warheads that could kill millions (if ever launched). My brother guarded ICBM silos when he was a security policeman in SAC. I sat in the Air Force’s missile-warning center at Cheyenne Mountain under 2,000 feet of solid granite as we ran computerized war games that ended in… yep, mutually assured destruction. We were, at least individually, not insane. We were doing our duty, following orders, preparing for the worst, while (most of us, anyway) hoping for the best.
“We’re going backwards as a country,” my wife reminds me — and I fear that she’s right. She summarized the hoopla at the B-21’s recent unveiling this way: “Let’s go gaga over a mass-murder machine.”
Collectively, it seems that we may be on the verge of returning to a nightmarish past, where we lived in fear of a nuclear war that would kill us all, the tall and the small, and especially the smallest among us, our children, who really are our future.
My fear: that we’ve already become comfortably numb to it and no longer can take on that culture of mass death. I say this with great sadness, as an American citizen and a human being.
No matter. At least a few of us will have profited from building new ultra-expensive stealth bombers and shiny new missiles, while ensuring that mushroom clouds remain somewhere in our collective future. Isn’t that what life is truly all about?
William Astore, a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF) and professor of history, is a TomDispatch regular and a senior fellow at the Eisenhower Media Network (EMN), an organization of critical veteran military and national security professionals. His personal blog is Bracing Views.