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.
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