Last month, Frank Kendall, Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, noted that the nuclear force modernization budget is unaffordable based on current forecasted defense funds. In response to dwindling resources, some suggest eliminating one or two legs of the nuclear triad to decrease costs. However, the U.S. needs to retain all three components of the strategic arsenal to deter aggressors and reassure allies.
The nuclear deterrent causes potential adversaries to recognize that a loss exceeds any gain that could result from launching a nuclear attack on America or its allies. Three legs make up the U.S. nuclear triad: strategic bombers, submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) — each component complements the force as a whole by providing distinct capabilities.
Strategic bombers provide flexibility since they can be recalled after deployment. Recall capability is vital considering contemporary deterrence must tailor to different actors — what deters one potential enemy may not deter another and what deters an adversary today may not be sufficient to deter him tomorrow. Bombers also serve as visible signals of protection to allies because they can be forward deployed in a crisis. More than 30 nations around the world rely on U.S. extended deterrence in place of developing their own nuclear capability.
Trident II SLBMs provide an assured second-strike capability with a full load range of about 4,230 nautical miles and a maximum speed of about 18,030 miles per hour. Not only do the 14 Ohio-class submarines carry 24 missiles each, they are also undetectable in the ocean. Since an enemy cannot locate and destroy SLBMs, they are guaranteed to survive in the event of a nuclear attack.
ICBMs are the most stabilizing leg of the triad – they are on alert and controlled by the president to allow a timely response. Each missile carries a warhead of about 300 to 500 kilotons and can be found in hardened underground silos at Air Force bases in Montana, North Dakota, Nebraska, Colorado and Wyoming. The U.S. is in the process of having 400 armed missiles, with 50 unarmed missiles in reserve, to comply with the New START Treaty by 2018. Even though these missiles are the cheapest leg of the triad, they pose a serious targeting challenge for an adversary.
Due to the Ohio-class submarine’s invisibility and guaranteed survival, some believe that the strategic deterrent can solely depend on the sea leg. Such a drastic change in policy would be a huge mistake. Keeping in mind that many submarines are at one of two ports at any given moment and some are out of commission due to maintenance cycles, the harbors could be tempting targets for aggressors — especially if it were the only standing leg of the deterrent. Additionally, a future technological breakthrough that would allow challengers to identify underwater craft in the ocean would increase chances of attack.
ICBMs provide stability because they are challenging targets. Since these missiles sit in hardened silos far away from one another, it is impossible for an enemy to entirely destroy them. Even if an adversary attempted to do so, an aggressor would need substantial nuclear forces to penetrate the hardened silos. In turn, the considerable force required would deplete the aggressor’s arsenal and America would respond with a deadly second-strike. However, if ICBMs were nonexistent, the number of targets an adversary would aim to demolish on American soil would dwindle from about 450 to a handful, increasing the likelihood of conflict.
Strategic bombers allow the U.S. to deescalate regional conflicts and reassure allies that Washington has their backs in a crisis. After all, nations under the nuclear umbrella risk their cities to defend them because they trust that the U.S. will provide protection. If the air leg were eliminated, allies would likely not trust America to use its land and sea legs to shield them from harm. Therefore, these nations may feel the need to develop their own nuclear arsenals or ally with another nuclear-armed state.
Contrary to popular belief, nuclear weapons are used every second of each day to prevent a nuclear attack on the U.S. and its allies. Since these deadly weapons have worked perfectly to prevent nuclear war, many people have forgotten why they are necessary. If enemies were to only focus on attacking one or two delivery platforms, America would lose its deterrence advantage. Furthermore, the triad allows the U.S. to forego chemical and biological stockpiles while still capable of an overwhelming force against an adversary. The nuclear triad is the only weapon structure that has worked without fail to prevent the use of nuclear arms.
Some opponents believe that a more peaceful world would result if the U.S. were to dismantle its nuclear force, assuming other countries will follow. This is a fairy tale. Nuclear technology cannot be uninvented – it is a threat that Washington must deter. According to the British strategist Sir Michael Quinlan, “Better unquestionably to have nuclear weapons but not war, than to have war but not nuclear weapons.” Even Winston Churchill warned the U.S. Congress in 1952, “Be careful, above all, not to let go of the atomic weapon until you are sure – and more than sure – that other means of preserving peace are in your hands.” America must ensure it has a powerful and diversified triad with a hedge that is larger than deployed forces to adapt to current and future threats and prevent the calculus of aggressors from changing.
All three legs of the triad are critical to national security because they overwhelm potential enemies with multiple targets, guarantee a deadly second-strike response, and satisfy allies’ perceptions of safety. Even so, America’s nuclear infrastructure and capabilities are decaying. To maintain a strong nuclear force, Congress must understand its continued relevance to international stability and provide an ample amount of resources to modernize all three legs of America’s strategic triad and the nuclear infrastructure that allows it to survive. If Washington fails to modernize its deterrent, regional conflicts are likely to increase and countries under the nuclear umbrella may decide to develop independent nuclear capabilities and pair up with other allies for protection.
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