“It is disturbing that the future of the strategic Triad — a deterrent force composed of manned bombers, land-based ICBMs, and submarine-launched ballistic missiles — is in question just as a mutually reinforcing mix of forces has become more important than ever.”
That’s not me. That’s the highly respected Mr. John Correll, former Editor-in-Chief of Air Force Magazine, writing in his magazine’s editorial 25 years ago.
Yet I couldn’t agree more. The nuclear deterrence challenges of the next few decades don’t look like 1984. However, the synergy of the Triad remains compelling. The Obama Administration is deep into a major review of the Triad as part of the goal of reducing total numbers of nuclear warheads. Right now the submarine leg seems safe. But there is a lot of expert debate over the bombers and ICBMs.
Here’s how General Kevin Chilton, Commander, United States Strategic Command, describes the role of the Triad. Chilton has operational control of US nuclear forces. He says that the responsiveness of ICBMS, the flexibility of bombers and the survivability of submarines are all needed in a world with several nuclear powers in need of deterring.
There’s plenty of coded talk there. What comes through is that as with conventional forces, no single type of nuclear force is perfect for every mission. Flying a potentially nuclear-armed B-52s or B-2s along near the airspace of some country might create just the unsettling effect desired in a crisis. At the same time, ICBMs in their silos are known to be ready to launch at a moment’s notice. The Minuteman is a pretty big missile so it can reach targets most anywhere without the range or geography constraints that might apply to bombers or submarines in some cases. And those submarines…well, just try finding them.
You get the point. Every commander of the nuclear forces has relished the flexibility of the three systems. It leaves adversaries guessing and seriously complicates any foolhardy plans to attack U.S. territory.
But surely, we don’t need to worry about nuclear attack? Well, perhaps not for the reasons we did in 1984. Yet most experts concur that the worst-case nuclear deterrence world of the future could contain handfuls of nation-states and rogue-states with nuclear forces. If that comes to pass, we will want a Triad that is smaller, but modernized, and most of all — still a Triad.
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