In a Post-Cold War World, Uncertainty Surrounds Nuclear Triad

By Valerie Insinna and Dan Parsons

The world is a very different place than it was in the 1950s, when the United States needed thousands of nuclear warheads and three ways to deliver them on target to keep the Soviet Union at bay.

More than two decades since the fall of the Iron Curtain and the end of the Cold War, the U.S. military still maintains all three legs of the nuclear “triad” — heavy bombers, submarines and land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles. Though both the United States and Russia have agreed to gradually reduce the number of deployable warheads in their strategic arsenals, a polarizing argument remains over whether the military needs or can afford each of the three methods of deploying them.

The Soviet Union is no more, but Russia remains the only nation with a nuclear arsenal that even remotely rivals the United States’ capability. While China is nuclear capable and has a large military, that nation’s weapons are primarily conventional. It does not have enough nuclear weapons to launch a first strike that would realistically threaten U.S. nuclear capability, given its three redundant legs.

The 2010 nuclear posture review recognized that Russia will remain an important bellwether in guiding the size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

“Because of our improved relations, the need for strict numerical parity between the two countries is no longer as compelling as it was during the Cold War,” the NPR stated.

The U.S. Nuclear Employment Strategy released June 19, which laid out the Obama administration’s plans for the arsenal and how it is deployed, echoed the 2010 NPR.

“The international security environment has changed dramatically since the end of the Cold War,” the strategy said. “The threat of global nuclear war has become remote, but the risk of nuclear attack has increased” because of proliferation and the rise of rogue nations and non-state actors.

Though the likelihood of nuclear war is small, and only Russia has the ability to counter the United States, the strategy called for maintaining the nuclear triad of submarines, bombers and land-based ICBMs.

Proponents of the triad, like Peter Huessy, a senior fellow of national security affairs at the American Foreign Policy Council, insist all three legs are necessary.

“Survivability, recallability and stability. You need all three of these things to maintain an effective deterrent,” Huessy told National Defense.

“The issue with the triad is how to maintain a secure, credible, survivable force at a reasonable price that gives us options and keeps them open,” he said. “You’re going to have bombers anyway … and you want something you can recall because that gives you an enormous amount of leverage. You don’t have to commit.”

The U.S. Nuclear Employment Strategy reflected Huessy’s position.

“Retaining all three triad legs will best maintain strategic stability at reasonable cost, while hedging against potential technical problems or vulnerabilities,” the strategy read. “These forces should be operated on a day-to-day basis in a manner that maintains strategic stability with Russia and China, deters potential regional adversaries and assures U.S. allies and partners.”
Gen. Garrett Harencak, commander of the Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center, argued in favor of retaining all three delivery vehicles.

“I don’t come to you as a Cold War zealot,” Harencak said at a recent breakfast hosted by Huessy. “The legs of the triad that the United States Air Force, in conjunction with the United States Navy, provide are as relevant today as it always has been, regardless of what the particular numbers are, regardless of treaties or whatever.”

“Ladies and gentlemen, it’s not either/or,” he said of the three legs. “It all works together. It has worked together and has been an absolutely vital part of our defense for decades and it will continue.”

The reason the United States ultimately ended up with three delivery systems for nuclear warheads was more a function — in the earlier days of the Cold War — of inter-service rivalry and bureaucracy than it was of specific strategic choice, said Kingston Reif, director of nuclear non-proliferation at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.

“Nuclear weapons were a huge driver of defense dollars … and a much larger part of U.S. national security policy back then. Each of the services wanted in on the action,” Reif said. “If we didn’t have any nuclear weapons now, and we were just beginning to develop them, it’s an open question whether we would put them on three different delivery systems. I think you can make a compelling case that if we were starting from ground zero, we wouldn’t necessarily do it that way.”

When the Cold War ended in 1991, the U.S. nuclear arsenal consisted of more than 10,000 total warheads, stated a Congressional Research Service report on nuclear strategy published in June. That number has steadily declined since then and will fall further to 1,550 warheads by 2018 according to the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty signed by Russia and the United States.

President Barack Obama, in a June speech in Berlin, suggested that the United States and Russia reduce their warheads by a further third, which would bring the U.S. strategic arsenal to around 1,000.

Below that number, the military needs to begin balancing its modern strategic needs with fiscal realities and its nuclear force structure, said Reif.

“We need to start thinking about whether the triad makes sense at lower numbers,” he said. “But it will be some time yet before we move away from [the triad]. One thousand warheads is probably more than we need to deter, but below that number, you get into economies of scale issues over whether we can maintain a triad.”

The Navy operates 14 nuclear-capable submarines, each carrying 24 Trident II D-5 missiles. The Navy converted four of its original 18 Trident submarines to conventional missions, the CRS report said. The remaining submarines carry around 1,000 warheads.

Because nuclear-armed submarines cannot be found when at sea, they are the most survivable leg of the triad and provide an assured retaliatory strike in the event the United States is hit with a first strike.

Huessy agreed that submarines are survivable when at sea, but said calling them invulnerable to attack is only half true. They also would become much less useful as a deterrent if a technological advance allows an adversary to locate them while underway, a fear that Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert has called “the oceans becoming transparent.”

“Submarines are survivable in part,” Huessy said. “We always talk about how this is the survivable leg of the triad. No. Those in port are not survivable. They are the most attractive target known to man. They are survivable at sea and in transit.”

The Air Force operates 19 B-2 bombers and 94 B-52 bombers that will fall to around 60 aircraft under New START, the CRS report said. The Air Force has also begun to retire the nuclear-armed cruise missiles carried by B-52 bombers, leaving only about half the B-52 fleet nuclear capable.

Long-range bombers represent the only method of deploying nuclear weapons that can be reversed once they are airborne. The Air Force can fly warheads to any part of the globe with no need to actually launch a nuclear weapon. This was most recently on display when a B-2 bomber was flown over South Korea to reinforce U.S. commitment to that nation’s safety from its rogue neighbor to the north.

Intercontinental ballistic missiles are the oldest and least expensive leg of the triad, but also the most stable, Huessy said. An enemy cannot attack them without going after the subs and bombers, and there are too many of them to destroy in one strike, he said.

The U.S. land-based ballistic missile force consists of 450 Minuteman III ICBMs, each deployed with between one and three warheads.

But ICBMs were specifically designed to counter the Soviet Union and are optimized to fly into or through modern Russian airspace, Reif said.

“Land-based missiles are no good for launching an attack against anyone other than Russia, really,” he said. “If we wanted to launch against North Korea or Iran, they would have to enter Russian airspace, and in that case, how are the Russians supposed to know the missile isn’t targeting them?”

The limitation is known as a “targeting inflexibility,” said a Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation report.

That “makes ICBMs a relatively less attractive option for a nuclear strike, compared to submarines and bombers,” it said. “Similarly, the inability to forward-deploy ICBMs minimizes their ability to contribute to nuclear deterrence. If submarines and bombers can be relied upon to provide credible deterrence, ICBMs are largely redundant.”

The arms-control community does not insist on the elimination of any one leg, but would at least prefer further reductions in nuclear warheads.

Even if a case can be made for the strategic need of all legs of the triad, it remains to be seen whether the military can afford them. Nearly all of the nuclear delivery vehicles will be reaching the end of their service lives at the same time, creating a financial challenge for the Pentagon.

Officials from the Air Force, Navy and Strategic Command advocate modernization programs that would either replace or extend the lives of current systems, but concede that budgetary hurdles could disrupt plans.

Some in the arms-control community are even more pessimistic, asserting that the military’s plans are unworkable in the current fiscal environment. Even if the United States maintains a triad, it may be forced to scale back some of its current modernization programs, they said.

“I think it would be good to have all the attributes that the three different legs provide, but, again, we live in a constrained budget environment, and we have to weigh that against affordability issues,” Reif said. “I think for the time being, we’re going to be able to maintain a triad, but as you get out into the 2020s and 2030s, I think that’s when the question starts to become quite a bit more salient. We have to start making some of those decisions about new replacement systems now.”

The most expensive near-term priority is updating the naval leg of the triad. The Navy is working on an Ohio-class submarine replacement, sometimes referred to as the SSBN(X). Each ship would be equipped with 16 Trident II D-5 missiles and cost about $6 billion.

The service plans to procure 12 Ohio-class replacements starting in 2021. However, the Navy’s 30-year shipbuilding plan for fiscal year 2014 stated that it might not have the resources to build as many ships as originally planned.

Between fiscal years 2021 and 2035, the Navy will need $19.2 billion a year to cover its shipbuilding needs, the plan said. In recent years, the service made do with around $14 billion.
Making procurement of the Ohio replacement even more challenging is that the Navy is retiring a large number of ships in the early 2020s that will need to be recapitalized, requiring an extra $2 billion each year, the plan stated.  

“If DoN funds the [Ohio replacement] from within its own resources, [it] will take away from construction of other ships in the battle force such as attack submarines, destroyers, aircraft carriers and amphibious warfare ships. The resulting battle force will not meet the requirements of the [Navy force structure assessment] and will therefore not be sufficient to implement the [Defense Strategic Guidance],” the plan said. “In addition, there will be significant impact to the shipbuilding industrial base.”

The Ohio-class submarine’s survivability makes it the most valuable leg of the triad, but savings could be generated by decreasing the number of boats from 12 to eight, Reif said.

“We can have bases in both oceans with eight,” he said. “Now, we couldn’t have five submarines on station, in position to promptly launch their warheads at targets. That would have to change. But again, the world has changed. That’s a Cold War-era requirement.”

The Arms Control Association — another organization that advocates for the reduction of nuclear warheads — suggested buying eight instead of 12 new Ohio replacements and pushing off procurement two years until 2023. It claimed doing so would save $15 billion over a decade.

When asked how many submarines the military would need, Air Force Gen. Robert Kehler, head of Strategic Command, said Navy leaders in the future may find they need more than the 12 planned subs.

But with 12 boats already straining the Navy’s budget, Reif questioned whether the service would even be able to manage that.

“I think it’s highly unlikely that the Navy is going to build 12 and an important reason for that is affordability,” Reif said. He pointed to how the Navy originally planned to buy 24 of the legacy Ohio-class submarines, ended up building 18 and then converted four of those for conventional warfare.

Besides procuring an Ohio replacement, the Navy has other modernization projects in the works.

It is currently conducting a life extension on its Trident II D-5 missiles, which will keep them operational until at least 2042. It is also refurbishing its W76 warhead stockpile, a process that will continue until 2017, the CRS report said.

There is little opportunity to defer, delay or delete any of those nuclear modernization programs, Vice Adm. Terry Benedict, director of the Navy’s Strategic Systems Programs, said in June.

The Navy was able to weather sequestration in fiscal year 2013, but any future sequestration cuts would affect future milestones.  The D-5 life extension program must be completed on time in order to proceed with the Ohio-replacement program, and the latter is necessary to meet requirements for the number of boats at sea, he said.

“There are very few dominos that can be dropped without setting off a sort of chain that breaks one or many of those … national programs,” Benedict said. “When I look at our budget… and I look at potential sequestration marks for ‘14 and out, I see the opportunity to have one or more of those … negatively impacted. I do not see tremendous budget reserve.”

Meanwhile, the Air Force is juggling plans to modernize the ground- and air-based legs of the triad.

In coming decades, it intends to develop a new heavy bomber, extend the life of the B61 nuclear bomb carried by B-2 aircraft and replace the air-launched cruise missiles carried by B-52s.

The long-range strike bomber would replace B-2 and B-52 bombers, which are expected to operate into the 2050s and 2040s, respectively. The Air Force plans to procure from 80 to 100 aircraft costing about $550 million each, the CRS report said. Over a 50-year lifespan, the program is expected to cost between $36 billion and $56 billion.

“I think it’s very unlikely that you’re going to get 100” aircraft, but a new bomber will remain an Air Force priority in part because of its ability to fly conventional missions, Reif said. Also, adding the nuclear capability is a “marginal cost” when compared to the aircraft itself.

The Air Force wants to have its new bomber developed, tested and possibly fielded for conventional missions before it is made nuclear capable, he said.

That doesn’t mean the service has no plans for the new bomber to be nuclear capable, “but certification is not planned until at least two years after the initial operating capability for the bomber,” Reif added.

If development of the bomber is pushed back until the mid-2020s, the service will save $18 billion in a decade, the Arms Control Association said.

The Air Force could also find savings in its B61 life extension program. The projected $10.4 billion cost of refurbishing B61 bombs is more than double the National Nuclear Security Administration’s original estimate, the Arms Control Association said. It recommends either scaling back the number of bombs to be upgraded or delaying the program until the mid-2020s.

The ground leg of the triad is the least expensive, but is often targeted by critics as being the least valuable part of the U.S. nuclear force.

In recent years, the Air Force has pursued myriad programs to upgrade its Minuteman III missiles. The total cost of these upgrades could amount to more than $6 billion and will keep the force viable until at least 2030, the CRS report stated.

Past that, the Air Force will have to decide whether to further extend the life of the Minuteman IIIs or to invest in a completely new system. The service is conducting an analysis of alternatives scheduled to be completed in 2014. Additionally, it has reached out to industry for white papers detailing ways to move forward, either with further modernization of the Minuteman or development of a new fixed, mobile or tunnel-based ICBM system.

The Air Force plans to reduce Minuteman III missiles to around 400 under New START, but the Arms Control Association believes a reduction to 300 missiles would net another $3 billion in savings. Development of a new ICBM could also be pushed off until the mid-2020s in order to rack up some small savings, it said.

The Pentagon will probably consider further ICBM reductions if it goes down to 1,000 warheads, as Obama suggested in his June speech in Berlin, Reif said.

The Minuteman replacement is the “last in the queue right now, which isn’t a good thing at a time of budget austerity,” Reif said. Replacing the Ohio-class subs and the bomber fleet will be an expensive, high-priority undertaking. If the United States retains the ICBM leg of the triad past 2030, the military will likely opt for another life extension of the Minuteman III, he said.

Still, proponents of the triad maintain that its costs are a bargain when compared to other government expenditures. If savings must be made, look elsewhere, they say.

“We’ve got too much recapitalization to do. … There is no more our Air Force budget could give up. In fact, we’re going to need a heck of a lot more,” Harencak said.

And while there may be savings to be gleaned by tweaking the numbers of warheads or missiles, “you had better not be going into the game believing that there’s a lot of money to be saved there, because there isn’t,” he added.

Topics: Armaments, Missile Defense

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