B52s refurbished with cruise missiles are a threat to peace

May 8, 2023
USAF B-52 Bomber

It’s not just the Australian senate that cannot know whether such missiles are conventional or nuclear, it’s also the receiving country. This uncertainty increases risks of nuclear war.

At Senate Estimates in February, Greens senators sought clarity from the foreign minister and secretary of defence on whether US B52s to be based in the Northern Territory might be carrying nuclear weapons. A very nice summary prepared by Sydney Criminal Lawyers is here. The answer is that ambiguity will remain, we won’t know… and nor will other interested nations including destination nations.

There is a serious problem of strategic ambiguity arising. From Vietnam to Iraq, the B52 at 50,000ft has been the purveyor of death by carpet bombing in the non-peer wars where the US mostly had freedom of the skies.

But the racks for bombs have now been removed from the B52, replaced by cruise missiles, fitting tested in 2021. Each B52 will carry twenty of these cruise missiles, with a range of more than 1,500 miles, and ability to follow terrain at low altitude and drop down the designated chimney. Clearly this is a very expensive way to deliver a conventional explosive. But the same little cruise missile can carry a thermonuclear device of up to 150kt. The bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were 15kt and 25kt respectively. “15t” meaning equivalent to fifteen thousand tonnes of TNT. This nuclear warhead is said to be thermonuclear, that is, a hydrogen bomb.

So a B52 could be carrying 20 hydrogen bombs, each up to ten times the explosive capacity as the bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. The aircraft itself with modern radar and other intelligence gathering and processing capabilities.

This fundamentally alters the strategic balance and notions of deterrence applying through the Cold War, where the US and USSR had enough missiles for the other side to know that if they struck first with a ‘first strike’ the other side could respond with many thousands of ‘prompt megadeaths’, in a second strike. For a long time the balance was not far off 1:1. This new frontline B52 with 20:1 ratio brings as big a change to battle as did the machine gun in altering man against man struggle in the American Civil War and World War One.

In the B52 case, the receiving state would potentially be uncertain whether warheads to be launched are conventional or nuclear. This means warhead ambiguity, and psychological ambiguity, and in such uncertainty the receiving state might consider the safest approach to be to destroy the B52 before it launched the cruise missiles that are very hard to defend against. Or to destroy it on the ground (including at Tindal) or indeed destroying its fuel storage (Darwin).

Some ambiguity issues are discussed in this Carnegie Endowment paper though that paper predates these issues arising with the twenty warhead B52.

The B52 has become a destabilising weapon in peer to peer or near-peer warfare. In the Cold War and years immediately following, a great effort was made also to preserve a gulf between conventional and nuclear war fighting means, and also to sustain arms control negotiations. That is being blown away by the B52 and other developments, including, in Europe, pushing Russia against a wall with an advancing NATO when NATO should be past history. Arms control agreements have now been cast aside. Russia does not trust the west, especially the neocon minds Blinken, Sullivan, and Nuland. Blinken still thinks he’s in charge. He’s not.

We have to follow the military minds in exploring conflict in practice. The United States navy has for decades followed the doctrine of Alfred Thayer Mahan that there can be only one commanding navy. From the 1970s the USN was increasingly concerned by the growth of the Soviet Far East Fleet, having in the United States Defence Guidance, when I read it in 1977, intention to wipe it out very swiftly in the event of central war. The Russian navy is far less a threat than was the Soviet navy; it is the Chinese navy that now challenges dominance, in a situation where USN doctrine continues intolerant of parity.

China is ahead of the US in development of hypersonic missiles, traveling at more than twice the speed of sound and very difficult to intercept: aircraft carrier killers. Now it is the US forces, stretched across the Pacific, that are at most risk. But apart from the fact that all war is indecent and a threat to the planet, once embarked upon, war between peer superpowers will be hard to keep non-nuclear. Planet doom, for most species.

There is no need for war. China is not a threat other than to American dominance. It would be useful for a moment to put aside old thinking and read these observations by Patrick Lawrence in April 2023.

The solemn folly of the Albanese government in trekking along in the war caravan is a betrayal of the nation. It is a grand folly, worthy of listing among other cases addressed by Barbara Tuchman.

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