A New Nuclear Triad?

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Something profound is happening in the proposed 2012 $670 billion (including $117 billion for Afghanistan and Iraq) defense budget that will be released on Monday, but few are paying attention. You may want to, because it sets the nation on a path that, if history is any guide, will last for a half-century, and cost hundreds of billions of dollars.

Both the Air Force and the Navy have gotten green lights to plan rebuilding all three legs of the nation’s so-called nuclear triad. The triad was a creation of the Cold War to ensure that some unforeseen super-weapon developed by the Soviet Union couldn’t destroy all of our nuclear weapons in first-strike, bolt-out-of-the-blue scenario (to use some Cold War lingo).

So the Navy got a fleet of ballistic-missile firing submarines. The Air Force got two legs of the triad — nuclear bombers and land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles. The logic of three legs was questionable during the Cold War — the Soviets could never detect and target all of the “boomer” submarines — and makes even less sense now.

Nonetheless, with the Pentagon currently spending more each year than it did during the Cold War, it’s got to find somewhere to put all that money. So the nuclear triad not only marches on, it is going to be rebuilt. On Feb. 4, the Navy announced it has begun planning for a new fleet of ballistic-missile submarines. Last month, Defense Secretary Robert Gates told the Air Force to get to work on a new bomber. And the Pentagon is studying follow-on designs for the land-based Minuteman III missile force.

“The Navy is committed to ensuring that an affordable replacement ballistic missile submarine is designed, built, and delivered on time with the right capabilities to sustain the most survivable leg of our triad for many decades to come,” said the Navy’s submarine procurement chief, Rear Adm. Dave Johnson.

“A major area of new investment for the Air Force will be a new long-range, nuclear-capable penetrating bomber,” Gates said Jan. 6.

“Land-based ICBMs are an integral and enduring part of the nuclear triad,” Air Force General Robert Kehler told the Senate Armed Services Committee last November at his confirmation hearing as head of U.S. Strategic Command. Studies now underway “will shape the plan and resource strategy to recapitalize our ICBM force beyond 2030.”

The decisions stem from last year’s Nuclear Posture Review, which concluded that “retaining all three Triad legs will best maintain strategic stability at reasonable cost, while hedging against potential technical problems or vulnerabilities.”

Replacing the triad would cost about $216 billion through 2050, according to a 2009 Air Force Association study. That includes $104 billion for the submarine leg, $68 billion for the bomber leg, and $44 billion for the land-based missile leg.

In late 2009, a senior U.S. nuclear-weapons designer argued that the nation seriously weigh moving to a “nuclear dyad” by scrapping its land-based ICBMs. But such a proposal, Jeffrey Richardson warned in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, “will provoke debate from certain camps, most notably, the pro-nuclear camp that feels unconstrained by fiscal resources and strives for a risk-free world.” The 35-year veteran of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory argued that the nation’s leaders need to admit that strategic nuclear forces “should mitigate possible risk and provide a hedge against potential scenarios, but also acknowledge that the elimination of all risk is unachievable.”

Yet as was the case during the Cold War, the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review said the possibility of currently unknown vulnerabilities justifies continuing the triple nuclear force. “Strategic nuclear submarines…represent the most survivable leg of the U.S. nuclear Triad,” it declared. “Today, there appears to be no viable near or mid-term threats to the survivability of U.S. [submarines], but such threats – or other technical problems – cannot be ruled out over the long term.” Of course, if ruling out long-term threats is the standard — a physical impossibility in this and every other known universe — the nuclear triad will never die.