In recent months, voices on the left have argued that the United States should abandon the strategic “triad” of nuclear weapons systems – intercontinental ballistic missiles, ballistic missile submarines, and heavy bombers. Some cite economic reasons, others say that the United States does not need or should not have a full triad given President Obama’s nuclear abolition agenda, and still others argue that scarce resources would be better invested in more “usable” capabilities. On October 11, for instance, Congressman Ed Markey and several dozen disarmament-inclined House members signed a letter to the supercommittee urgingthe panel to make major cuts to the triad. (Markeyreportedly proposeseliminating at least one element of the triad altogether.)
This is nothing new. There have always been advocates against America’s nuclear weapons. What is more ominous, however, is that doubts about whether the United States will or should maintain sufficient funds for the triad seem to be gaining traction. For instance, a nuclear expert at the White House hasstatedpublicly that the United States has “reached the level in our forces where further reductions will raise questions about whether we retain the triad, or whether we go to a system that only is a dyad.” A respected Pentagon nuclear policymaker, meanwhile, said recently that it is a very real possibility that the Defense Department will not be able to sustain the triad in light of the bleak budgetary environment. And the commander of U.S. Strategic Command, General Robert Kehler, alsoraisedthe question this month whether budgetary pressures might force a move to a dyad of delivery systems. Additionally, the Obama administration is conducting a “mini-Nuclear Posture Review” to find ways to reduce U.S. nuclear forces further.
But unless one is simply an adamant disarmer or thinks that nuclear weapons are totally irrelevant in light of America’s current conventional and technological prowess, dropping the triad just does not make sense. Whatever nuclear policy different administrations choose to adopt now and in the future, maintaining the triad of delivery systems is a worthy investment. Why? Because it is stabilizing, it gives the president options, and it is a bargain.
We want our strategic forces to provide stability. Our nuclear weapons are the ultimate guarantor of U.S. national security, so we want our nuclear forces to give us the ability to strike back at any opponent no matter what that opponent does – and we want the opponent to know that. Today’s triad does this. If an opponent figures out how to shoot down stealthy bombers and cruise missiles, we can respond with ballistic missiles. If it figures out how to track submarines, we have ICBMs and bombers. If it tries to take out our land-based forces, we have submarines at sea. The bottom line is that there is no plausible contingency in which an opponent could succeed in frustrating our ability to retaliate. This means there is no reasonable course of action leading to a major attack on the United States. Additionally, having multiple delivery options means that if one of our systems or its warheads fails – far from impossible given their age – there are backup systems that can compensate for such failure. The cumulative result is stability and deterrence.
Uniquely among all the world’s nuclear arsenals, U.S. nuclear weapons also guarantee the security of allies and friends around the world, including many that face constant threats in dangerous and unstable regions. A safe, survivable, and reliable U.S. triad provides similar benefits to these allies and friends around the world.
All of this is true whether one believes the United States needs 1,550 deployed strategic warheads – the number allowed by the New START agreement – or not. Indeed, those favoring reductions should be particularly supportive of the triad, because the lower we go, the more precious each remaining warhead is, so we need to make sure it can survive a first strike.
In addition to stability, the triad gives the president options, both in terms of how the weapons could be used as well as in signaling in tense situations to both potential adversaries and allies. The bomber leg of the triad has been used repeatedly over the last 65 years to show our resolve and warn potential adversaries.
Furthermore, the triad is a bargain. One 2009 Air Force Association report estimated the total cost of modernizing the triad at $216 billion – a pretty steep figure until it’s noted that this will be amortized over forty years. Even the whole cost of the U.S. nuclear force, roughly $30 billion a year, is a fraction of the total defense budget of $703 billion requested by the administration for fiscal year 2012. It is true that acquiring the replacement to the Ohio-class fleet ballistic missile submarine and the next-generation heavy bomber will both take major bites into the defense research and development and acquisition budgets over the next 10-20 years, but there is no better way to spend those dollars than on ensuring we have a stable and effective deterrent. Moreover, many of the technologies developed will be useful for other weapons programs; the heavy bomber, for example, will have both conventional and nuclear roles.
A final reason is less technical but nonetheless important. U.S. nuclear policy, which even President Obama envisions being of central importance beyond his lifetime, has been in many ways adrift since the end of the Cold War. After embarrassing incidents at Minot Air Force Base and with the unintentional shipment of sensitive components to Taiwan, the U.S. government has tried to refocus on developing a sustainable, reasonably bipartisan consensus on nuclear policy for the coming years. This hasn’t been easy. But it has resulted in serious, constructive efforts such as the Schlesinger Task Force, the Congressional Strategic Posture Commission, and, most importantly, the Resolution of Ratification to the New START agreement– all of which called for the retention and modernization of a triad. Throwing this away by abandoning the triad would also undermine the earnest pursuit of some degree of consensus on an area critical to our national security.
There is nothing wrong with a “mini-Nuclear Posture Review.” Further reductions in U.S. strategic forces might be acceptable, if done as part of a broader strategy to maintain a strong and effective nuclear deterrent. But reducing and cutting our nuclear capabilities for its own sake does not make sense, even if it sounds nice in a presidential speech. We need a modern and effective triad, and the administration and Congress should commit to funding, developing, and building the systems required to make that happen.
Elbridge Colby served on the Defense Department New START negotiation and ratification team and as an expert advisor to the Congressional Strategic Posture Commission. Paul Lettow is the author of Ronald Reagan and His Quest to Abolish Nuclear Weapons and served as senior director for strategic planning on the National Security Council staff from 2007-2009. The views set forth here are the personal views of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of any organization with which they are associated.