In the early years of the Cold War, America’s armed services faced a conundrum. The branches of the armed forces were fighting for control over America’s nuclear arsenal. The Army’s land-based ballistic missiles, the Navy’s ships and submarines, and the newly-independent Air Force’s strategic bombers all wanted a piece of the action in the nuclear age. It wasn’t just a matter of pride and prestige: Budgets and future relevance were at stake.
The solution eventually arrived at was more political than strategic in its rationale. When it came to the nuclear arsenal, the United States settled upon an “all of the above” strategy. Eventually, this developed into the familiar term, “nuclear triad.”
Familiar to military planners, but not too familiar to the public
The nuclear triad refers to the three primary ways America’s military can deliver nuclear weapons.
The first is the land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, better known as ICBMs. After being initially developed by the Army, control of strategic long-range missiles were eventually transferred to the Air Force.
In silos scattered throughout the Rocky Mountains and Great Plains, aging Minuteman III missiles are continuously manned and maintained. They are ready at a moment’s notice to devastate anywhere on the planet within 45 minutes.
The second leg of the triad belongs to the Navy: Ballistic-missile submarines, known by their naval code prefix SSBN. Fourteen Ohio-class submarines patrol the world’s oceans, maintaining strict radio silence, providing a guaranteed retaliatory ability.
The third leg of the triad are strategic bombers: The B-1, B-2, and B-52s carrying either gravity-dropped bombs or, more commonly, short-range cruise missiles. From bases in the continental United States, these planes can be in the air and on the way to the enemy before their bases are destroyed by a first strike.
Why the triad is an obsolete approach to nuclear deterrence
All three of these elements – hence, a “triad” – form a key part of America’s doctrine for retaliating to a possible “bolt from the blue” first strike by Soviet, or modern Russian, nuclear forces.
ICBMs provided a level of accuracy that early submarine-launched missiles could not. Bomber aircraft provided an additional layer of redundancy and unique abilities.
These rationales are long-obsolete in 2017, however. For years, members of Congress have been questioning the billions of dollars spent annually on maintaining America’s nuclear triad.
France and Britain have already moved in this direction. At one point, both nations also maintained a nuclear triad. In time, it became pointless to maintain land-based missiles, too vulnerable to a first strike, and strategic bomber aircraft. They were slow and vulnerable to being shot down.
France and Britain now rest their deterrent capabilities on missile submarines, armed with precise ballistic missiles. The British have four Trident submarines, with at least one on patrol at all times.
America’s SSBN fleet is much larger, and by itself carries enough devastation to provide a credible deterrent against any aggressor, including Russia and China. It’s time for Congress to take a serious look at retiring the ICBM arsenal as well as the strategic nuclear bombers.
Aside from maintaining a credible deterrent, nuclear weapons are thankfully not a relevant part of most modern warfighting.
Instead of “strengthening” America’s nuclear arsenal, we should instead get all of the strategic security benefit at a third of the cost by eliminating the triad.
(Screenshot from video by Department of Defense News.)