Could the Nuclear Triad Become a ‘Bi-ad?’
“I continue to stand by a need for a triad,” Air Force Gen. C. Robert Kehler, Stratcom commander, told reporters in Washington, D.C.
The prospects for budget cuts have prompted some pundits to question the need to fund all three parts of the nation’s methods of delivering nuclear weapons — land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, bombers and submarines armed with sea-launched missiles.
Wouldn’t it be better to do away with one of the three and make the remaining two more robust rather than to trying to sustain all three? Kehler was asked.
“I will tell you that in the near term that we can sustain a triad. I think there will be interesting questions about both the scope and pace of modernization as we go forward,” he said.
“In that structure, I believe that a triad of force makes the most strategic sense, makes the most operational sense and ultimately is the right way to go forward today,” he said.
Modernizing the forces may include a long-range bomber to replace the aging B-52, he said. But it must include an attack submarine to replace the Ohio-class submarines, which will need to be replaced starting in the late 2020s, he said. Research and development needs to continue, so a replacement is ready by the time the first Ohio-class submarine is ready to retire, he said.
Unlike the B-52, which is entering its sixth decade of service, submarines are subject to extreme pressures underneath the ocean. The metal that encapsulates the crew simply wears out, he noted.
In the distant future, there could be a discussion about eliminating one of the three legs. It will depend on new treaties, the strategic situation the nation finds itself in, “and of course, there is a budgetary dimension to this,” he added.
The question remains whether budget pressures will allow the Defense Department to continue with plans to modernize new platforms such as submarines and long-range bombers.
“Can we in fact spend the resources to modernize all of the triad? Those are not all questions for today,” he said.
He warned about making budgetary decisions that would leave the military less capable of carrying out its nuclear mission. “We can have a hollow nuclear force and we need to be very careful about that. You can have a hollow nuclear force in the industrial base that supports the weapons,” he said.
The Air Force found itself in trouble “ a few years back” because it made some budgetary decisions to fund conventional forces over nuclear forces, Kehler said, referring to an incident where cruise missiles with their warheads still attached were flown on a routine logistics flight over the continental United States.
“You can have a hollow nuclear force just like you can have a hollow conventional force,” Kehler said.