The end of the Cold War brought with it a reduction in the size of strategic nuclear arsenals but not a diminution in the importance of nuclear forces in U.S. national security. The balance of terror has been replaced by the uncertainty associated with the potential proliferation of weapons of mass destruction into the hands of terrorist groups and rogue regimes and the prospect, albeit small at present, of a confrontation with a nuclear-armed Russia or China. The emergence of new threats has given rise to the need to think anew about the role strategic nuclear forces will play in the new U.S. national security strategy.
The United States needs a strategic nuclear force that is capable of addressing the broad range of current and prospective threats that confront or could challenge this nation in the next several decades. For this reason, this force must be relatively large and robust, as well as flexible. The size and character of the force must be such as to dissuade any would-be competitor from attempting to equal U.S. power through a new nuclear arms race. It must deter other nuclear powers, notably Russia and China, from any use of their strategic nuclear forces by the threat of unacceptable retaliatory damage. The U.S. strategic nuclear force must be able to execute a full range of preemptive and retaliatory strikes against rogue state or terrorist weapons of mass destruction (WMD) capabilities while continuing to maintain a capability to deter all other potential threats.
Strategic nuclear forces are a central element of the new strategic TRIAD. Their presence alone can serve to enable non-nuclear strategic strike capabilities by denying adversaries a viable escalatory option. They provide the means for attacking targets that are invulnerable to non-nuclear strike capabilities. They can enhance the effectiveness of defenses, either by reducing the threat through offensive action or complicating an attack by means of a diversified basing structure.
The U.S. strategic nuclear structure must continue to maintain a diversified force of bombers, ICBMs and submarine-based ballistic missiles. Of the three legs of the strategic nuclear TRIAD, ICBMS make unique contributions to the force of the future. The characteristics of the ICBM that once made them a central concern of arms control – high accuracy, responsiveness, selective employment – make the single warhead ICBM the most desirable weapons system in future conflict scenarios. ICBMs could be employed to deliver special payloads tailored to the requirement of defeating WMD proliferation. The current ICBM basing mode, 500 Minutemen III in hardened silos, is an important contributor to deterrence, constituting the overwhelming majority of aim points in the strategic nuclear force posture. Maintaining a strong and capable strategic nuclear force of some 2,200 deployed weapons dispersed across the three legs of the Triad would contribute powerfully to U.S. national security.
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