U.S. Nuclear Deterrence in the 21st Century: Getting it Right

C. The United States Continues to

Require a  Robust ‘Triad’

The likelihood of continuing volatility in the post-Cold War strategic environment demands that the United States drastically reverse the de facto “freeze” that has hobbled the nuclear enterprise for nearly two decades.  The dynamic forces at work globally – many of them quite hostile to the U.S. and its allies – affirms and reinforces the need for a complete “Triad” of weapons delivery systems through land, sea, and air.  This reality has been repeatedly affirmed:

•     Strategic Posture Commission (May 2009):

“The Commission has reviewed arguments in favor of a dyad but recommends retention of the current triad.  Each leg of the triad has its own value:

“The bomber force is valuable particularly for extending deterrence in time of crisis, as their deployment is visible and signals U.S. commitment. Bombers also impose a significant cost burden on potential adversaries in terms of the need to invest in advanced air defenses.

“The Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) force imposes on a prospective aggressor the need to contemplate attacking only with very large number of nuclear weapons, substantially depleting its forces while ensuring a devastating response by the United States.  The force is also immediately responsive in a highly controlled manner.  And for the foreseeable future, there is no prospect that a significant portion of the ICBM force can be destroyed by a preemptive strike on the United States by small nuclear powers, including China.

“The Submarine Launched Ballistic Missile (SLBM) force is currently the most survivable, meaning that no attacker could contemplate a nuclear attack on the United States without expecting U.S. retaliation.

“Resilience and flexibility of the triad have proven valuable as the numbers of operationally deployed strategic nuclear weapons has declined.  They promise to become even more important as systems age and if back-up systems within each leg of the triad are reduced.  If one leg of the triad were to go out of service as a result of a technical problem in the delivery system or warhead, the other two legs could still provide credible deterrence.”76

•     STRATCOM Commander General Chilton (March 2008):  “The nuclear capability of the original Triad remains a vital part of our deterrence strategy.”77

•     Senate ICBM Coalition Letter to President Obama (May 2009):  “We strongly believe that all three legs of the Triad must be maintained in order to retain a highly reliable and credible nuclear force.”78

In short, there is a strong case for maintaining the current Triad force of 450 ICBMs, 14 Trident submarines and nuclear-capable B2 and B52 bombers in its current platform configuration, both to maintain stable deterrence and as a hedge against future uncertainty.