STRATCOM Commander General Robert Kehler spoke to the Defense Writers Group yesterday and according to GSN’s Elaine Grossman, raised some interesting albeit vague questions about the future of the triad. He also repeated an oft-heard argument about the likely impact of further reductions below New START levels on the triad:
Kehler said a key concern about maintaining a triad at lower numbers is that remaining weapons could become “hollow” — a situation in which forces might appear robust on paper but fail to reflect a diminished capability out in the field.
“We need to be very careful,” Kehler told reporters. One worry, he said, is that “you can have a hollow nuclear force in the industrial complex that supports the weapons. I think you [also] can have a hollow nuclear force in the force itself.”
“But I think there will be some very tough decisions to make here at certain [nuclear force] levels, and whether or not you can then sustain a leg of the triad without it becoming hollow,” Kehler said. “Can you have enough expertise? Can you have enough sustainment horsepower, if you will, behind it to really make it a viable leg? Those are all great questions and those are questions we’re going to have to address.”
In a September interview with Arms Control Today, White House coordinator for arms control and weapons of mass destruction terrorism Gary Samore stated that “we’ve reached the level in our forces where further reductions will raise questions about whether we retain the triad or whether we go to a system that only is a dyad.” He didn’t elaborate as to why he believes this to be the case.
Is the conventional wisdom correct?
In their now well-known article arguing that the U.S. can maintain stable deterrence with a nuclear force of 311 nuclear weapons deployed on a triad of delivery vehicles, Col B. Chance Saltzman, chief, Strategic Plans and Policy Division, Headquarters Air Force, and two professors at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama stated that the size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal “should be based primarily on the requirements for a stable, reliable, nuclear deterrent, with support issues like industrial base support, crew force management, and training only weighing in as secondary considerations.”
In a follow-up article responding to their critics, Saltzman et al., go into greater detail:
The second charge appears to be more problematic. Presumably, a smaller force would be less efficient and more difficult to maintain than a larger one because a smaller force would result in a smaller industrial base, which means greater dependencies on a relatively small number of suppliers. Theoretically, this is cause for concern, but in reality it is not. The entire nuclear weapons complex has been a government enterprise since the beginning. It currently consists of eight sites that research, develop, produce, procure, assemble, maintain, disassemble, and test the nuclear and nonnuclear components of the arsenal. The production of nuclear weapons requires a very large capital investment and is characterized by the predominance of fixed costs and a single consumer of its products, the US government. Indeed, the same physical plant would be necessary to produce 10 or 1,000 nuclear weapons. This suggests it is a natural monopoly that has been controlled by the government for its entire existence. The supply of delivery vehicles, such as long-range bombers, booster rockets, and SSBNs, however, is subject to the vagaries of the marketplace, as consolidation of the defense industrial base over the past few decades makes clear.
Lastly, there is the question of force management. Just how small can a force become until it does not resemble a force at all? That is a difficult question to answer. Certainly, large numbers can lead to organizational competencies and the development of a professional cadre. However, as originally suggested, a small force can also achieve those aims. The Navy’s SEALs are selective, well funded, and effective. One might wonder how a nuclear force with similar qualities might look. For starters, it would attract the best candidates. To enhance recruitment, incentives might be offered; bonuses being one, prestige another. The services are expert at managing both, so this should not be too problematic. Nuclear warriors also deserve the best equipment, which gets back to designing, testing, and deploying new systems, if required.
The authors don’t appear to deny that maintenance of the triad at lower levels may not be cost-effective (particularly if the Pentagon is forced to make significant spending reductions). Moreover, they don’t address the potential impact on strategic stability of maintaining a triad at lower numbers or building new systems. They also don’t offer much in the way of advice as to how to circumvent entrenched political interests calling for the maintenance of the triad at or near current levels (i.e. the ICBM caucus).
Nonetheless, its interesting food for thought, especially their claim that its possible to sustain expertise and a motivated work force with fewer nuclear weapons.