As the nation grapples with its need to cut hundreds of billions of dollars from its future defense budgets every year, one category seems MIA: the nuclear triad. But it’s worth noting that those who embrace it tend to be those running it, while the nation’s top military officers — who have to juggle competing demands, and not just the nation’s nukes — are beginning to weigh the wisdom of the Cold War-era triangle that places atomic weapons atop land-based ballistic missiles, inside the bomb bays and under the wings of long-range bombers, and in missile tubes on submarines constantly patrolling the world’s oceans.
Tuesday morning, General Robert Kehler, the Air Force officer who runs U.S. Strategic Command — the guy who, in other words, oversees all U.S. strategic (i.e., long-range) nuclear weapons — said the nation must continue operating the triad for the foreseeable future, and find the hundreds of billions of dollars needed for new subs, bombers and missiles on which to deploy its nuclear might. “A triad of forces makes the most strategic sense, makes the most operational sense, and ultimately, I think, is the right way to go forward today,” he told Battleland. It’s the redundancy of the three systems that gives the triad its value: a foe could never plan on disabling or destroying all three legs, so the U.S. would always be able to retaliate.
But the triad’s days are numbered.
Kehler acknowledged that if the number of deployed U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear weapons and their launchers — now capped at 1,550 and 700, respectively — continues to drop, it will becoming increasingly costly to keep all three legs. “You can have a hollow nuclear force, just like you can have a hollow conventional force,” he said. “There will be some very tough decisions to make here at certain levels, and whether or not you can then sustain a leg of the triad without it becoming hollow.”
But he didn’t agree that a shrinking military budget might also be an opportune time to jettison one of the triad’s legs to ensure the two remaining get adequate funding. “I would agree, it’s not a trinity,” he said, referring to the view in some quarters that the triad is a matter of theology. But “sustaining a triad is the right thing to do now.” Kehler was just echoing the view of Air Force Secretary Michael Donley, who last month flatly declared “We must maintain the nuclear triad.”
But the nation’s senior military officers seem to be taking a more nuanced approach. Adm. Mike Mullen, who until last month served as the nation’s top military officer, uttered the word “dyad” in one of his final talks in uniform. His replacement as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army General Martin Dempsey, also is pondering the issue. “We’ve been studying and must continue to study the capability given to us by the triad,” Dempsey said last week. Among Pentagon tea-leaf readers, that’s a strange sentence: it raises the possibility that the triad’s value is not sacrosanct.
The submarine leg, Dempsey noted, is the “most survivable” part of the triad, “and therefore I consider it to be indispensable.” (Of course, one needs to take his comment with a grain of salt water: he was responding to a question from Connecticut Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Electric Boat). Also worth noting: he didn’t call the two Air Force legs “indispensable.”
The U.S. once cowered in fear over the Soviet Union’s military might, fears found to be overblown following its collapse in 1991. Yet experts continue to assert it is a deliberate nuclear strike from Russia — and now, of course, China — that should be driving U.S. nuclear policy and requires replacing all three legs of the nuclear triad. The “most threatening” new Russian nuclear weapon “is the new heavy ICBM, which is basically a Cold War relic,” according to Mark Schneider, a senior analyst at the National Institute for Public Policy.
Meanwhile, the fight over the need to maintain the triad has moved to Congress, where Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., and more than 60 of his Democratic colleagues have urged cutting spending on nuclear weapons from $700 billion over the next decade by $200 billion. “These funds are a drain on our budget and a disservice to the next generation of Americans,” the lawmakers told the 12-member congressional “super committee” charged with cutting federal spending. “We are robbing the future to pay for the unneeded weapons of the past.” (Speaking of “weapons of the past,” the letter says “we need to freeze our nuclear weapons” — a tone deaf echo of the Reagan-era “nuclear freeze” movement that gained scant traction and probably shouldn’t be mentioned by anyone interested in rationalizing the nation’s atomic arsenal.)
The notion of cutting nuclear-modernization funding earned a sharp rebuke from Rep. Michael Turner, R-Ohio, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee’s nuclear subcommittee. “At a time when Russia and China are engaging in significant nuclear modernization programs and North Korea and Iran continue their illegal nuclear weapons programs,” Turner said, “what Mr. Markey proposes amounts to unilateral disarmament of the U.S.”
Perhaps. But instead of seeing the nuclear tug-of-war between the U.S. and everyone else, Jeffrey Lewis, a non-proliferation expert at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, told Turner’s strategic forces subcommittee last Friday that nuclear tensions exist between China and Russia. “They are quite worried and — one might even say — paranoid about one another,” Lewis noted. “A significant percentage of the things that the Chinese have done when it comes to modernizing their forces seem to be Soviet- and then Russia-oriented.”
Lewis said that U.S. observers sometimes see Chinese actions as pointed at the U.S., when they’re really targeted at Russia. “For example, they spent considerable time making sure that their ICBMs, which we often think of as being pointed at us, were capable of penetrating the Moscow ABM system,” Lewis said. “There is a very significant fear there that makes it very complicated as we try to engage with both countries.” All this suggests that the way to a safer world isn’t to build more weapons, but to scale them back and institute more robust command-and-control systems.
The Navy, perhaps more than the Air Force, sees the writing on the wall. The sea service is studying the possibility of squeezing ballistic-missile tubes into its new fleet of attack submarines, Navy Times reports. That could leave the Air Force’s land-based intercontinental ballistic missile fleet as the lone strategic platform solely dedicated to the nuclear mission, and make it increasingly vulnerable to a budgetary “bolt out of the blue” first strike.