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RICK’S COLUMN

America’s nuclear enterprise: Something not readily comprehended

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Posted on Apr 19 2021
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While there is much focus on the military buildup throughout the Marianas Islands and Western Pacific in public square discussions, equal emphasis has not been placed on the various components that make up the American nuclear enterprise, its enormity, and its ongoing association in and with the Marianas.

What is the nuclear enterprise?

America’s nuclear enterprise is the organizational ecosystem—people, money, institutions, and companies—that supports national nuclear weapons missions. The enterprise consumes up to $40 billion each year to pay for development, testing, research, life extensions, construction, manufacturing, and restart work related to updating and sustaining nuclear weapons stockpiles, national labs, security, early warning/command and control processes, and weapons delivery systems. 

Key organizations involved 

The White House, U.S. Congress, and the departments of Defense and Energy oversee and drive decisions affecting the nuclear enterprise. The largely military-focused nature of America’s nuclear enterprise is founded on the perceived need to maintain nuclear weapons superiority and advantage to deter and dissuade potential adversaries from attacking America, its colonies such as Guam, and its allies. America’s nuclear triad of air-, land- and sea-based platforms and systems has been the practical outcome of this enterprise. 

Space-based assets are an integral component within the nuclear enterprise as well because space-based assets further enable the triad to remain fully operational 24/7, 365 days a year. Non-governmental organizations are also involved in the nuclear enterprise, providing a variety of insights and critiques on this very important, dangerous, and complicated topic. 

New START Treaty

Currently, the New START Treaty, which initially entered into force in 2011 between the United States and Russia, was recently renewed for five additional years. New START is the only remaining nuclear arms control treaty now in place between the U.S. and Russia, after former President Trump withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in 2019. The New START Treaty limits the number of deployed strategic nuclear warheads to 1,500 on over 600 deployed submarines, heavy bombers, and land-based missile site locations. New START also contains provisions that outline what actions are to be taken to execute proper treaty compliance. 

The influence of nuclear weapons 

Nuclear weapons have been the single most impactful factor driving geopolitical and military posturing throughout the planet, most especially in the Asia-Pacific region. A U.S Army Air Corps crew initiated two separate nuclear bomb attacks from Tinian against Japan, which brought an end to World War II. Since then, our Pacific Ocean area has been the key testing grounds for nuclear weapons by several nations, including France, Britain, and the United States. 

Pacific Islander civilizations such as ours have never had any say on matters pertaining to the massive nuclearization of our blue ocean continent by major powers since the creation of the atom bomb. 

American nuclear testing conducted in the Marshall Islands from the 1940s through the 1960s, exposed our entire ancient Chamorro Pacific Islander civilization to radioactive poisons traveling within and above the atmosphere and down current from the blasts. These exposures to poisonous substances have contributed to our Chamorro people contracting rare cancers and diseases. 

Guam’s Cold War contributions to the nuclear triad

During the Cold War, Guam played an essential part in supporting the sea- and air-based legs of America’s nuclear triad. Our island homeported Navy nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines that carried Polaris missiles armed with nuclear warheads. In northern Guam, Andersen Air Force Base was home to scores of B-52s assigned to nuclear and conventional missions at levels not seen anywhere else on the planet. 

The intent of having such high concentrations of nuclear triad platforms placed on-island was to further ensure that the effective employment of deployed nuclear weapons complicated Russia’s nuclear weapons attack planning in the Western Pacific. 

Guam’s pivotal role in strategic nuclear posturing helped the American Navy and Air Force ensure maximum flexibility, stealth, and platform recallability was in place, to enable the military the freedom of action to carry out its assigned nuclear deterrence mission sets. 

Guam has also been and continues to be a key colonial overseas location where several kinds of nuclear bombs used by the Navy and Air Force have been stored for contingency planning purposes. 

Guam’s present-day contributions to the nuclear triad 

The B-52s that fly to Andersen represent America’s rotational nuclear bomber squadron community. Approximately 46 B-52s are assigned to deploy nuclear weapons worldwide. The remaining 30 B-52s in the total Air Force inventory is used for conventional non-nuclear missions. Fighter aircraft such as the F-16 and F-35 that come to Guam or are stationed on-island are tactical fighter bombers that also carry nuclear weapons for nonstrategic missions. 

The B-2 bombers that come to Guam are part of a total Air Force aircraft inventory of approximately 20. The B-2 bomber carries nuclear weapons and was designed to penetrate enemy airspace by flying at relatively low altitudes. 

The B-1 bombers that come to Guam do not carry nuclear weapons due to New START Treaty obligations. The B-1s are used within the Asia-Pacific region to conduct what the military calls “reassurance missions.” 

Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines represent the sea-based leg of America’s nuclear triad. Seven of the 12 Ohio-class submarines used for the sea-based nuclear deterrence mission are assigned to patrol the Pacific Ocean area. Each boat is outfitted with 20 missile launch tubes. 

The Navy maintains a total inventory of approximately 1,100 nuclear warheads to support the sea-launched nuclear deterrence mission of the United States. Each missile may have differing numbers of warheads to meet specific operational objectives of individual Ohio-class submarines. The Navy in Guam supports Ohio-class submarines, and homeports four nuclear-powered Los Angeles-class attack submarines because of the increasing importance of undersea warfare in the region. 

Rick Perez | Author
Rick Perez used to serve in the U.S. military and has work experiences in public policy research and public affairs. He is passionate about national security and geopolitics and runs a newsletter called Guam Affairs at guamaffairs.substack.com. For questions or comments, contact Perez at rickp7839@gmail.com.
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