Many years ago, during a debate on whether to build new bombers to carry nuclear weapons, a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee, former Representative Charlie Bennett of Florida, made a pointed declaration:
THE TRIAD IS NOT THE TRINITY!
By that wise pronouncement, Bennett was saying that the Pentagon’s nuclear weapons policy adopted early in the Cold War to spread the United States’ nuclear force among three legs or components was not the gospel, but rather a policy that no longer served its purpose.
The United States nuclear force is composed of three components that are described as synergistic:
- On land, with intercontinental ballistic missiles
- At sea, with nuclear-powered submarines
- In the air, with long-range nuclear bombers
Each of the three legs has its advantages and disadvantages in terms of speed, cost, vulnerability to attack, whether the system can be recalled once launched and more.
All three legs of the triad are edging toward the end of their useful lives and at some point in the near-future, all three legs will need to be replaced – or eliminated.
It is estimated that the United States will spend $700 billion on nuclear weapons-related programs over the next decade, including spending on new nuclear submarines, bombers and land-based missiles as well as on new facilities to build new explosive cores for nuclear warheads.
The Navy plans to spend around $110 billion to build a new fleet of nuclear-armed submarines. The Pentagon estimates the total cost of building and operating the new submarine at nearly $350 billion over its 50 year lifespan. The Air Force also intends to spend $55 billion on procurement of 100 new bombers and an unknown sum on new land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Recently, Air Force Secretary Michael Donley told the Air Force Association’s annual gathering “We must maintain the nuclear triad.”
But must we?
Time Magazine writer Mark Thompson pointed out that Donley’s statement might just have had something to do with the fact that the Air Force currently owns two of the legs, the bombers and missiles.
Thompson went on to argue: “The triad is a Cold War construct that has outlived its usefulness and now only offers illusory hedges against Strangelovian fantasy attacks at a cost of billions of dollars annually.”
But equally important is the question of whether the United States can afford to spend hundreds of billions of dollars to build and maintain all three delivery systems for nuclear warheads.
Other high level Pentagon officials without a bureaucratic interest in the survival of the triad are raising questions about its affordability.
Mike Mullen, outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a few days ago uttered words that will likely throw terror into the hearts of the nuclear establishment:
“At some point in time, that triad becomes very, very expensive, you know, obviously, the smaller your nuclear arsenal is. And it’s — so at some point in time, in the future, certainly I think a decision will have to be made in terms of whether we keep the triad or drop it down to a dyad. I didn’t see us near that in this recent — over the last couple of years, with respect to the New START. But I spent enough time to know, at some point,that is going to be the case.”
He is not alone in expressing such sentiments. Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who supports maintaining the nuclear triad, refused to rule out eliminating one leg in a May 2011 press conference, saying that nothing can be “off the table” as the Pentagon evaluates budget choices in the future.
Strategic Command chief Gen. Robert Kehler, the man who commands U.S. strategic nuclear forces, added recently:
“We’re not going to be able to go forward with weapon systems that cost what weapon systems cost today. Case in point is [the] Long-Range Strike [bomber]. Case in point is the Trident [submarine] replacement…. The list goes on.”
Other military leaders have stated that they do not know how many and what kinds of nuclear weapons the U.S. requires to meet present security needs. As former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. James Cartwright noted in July .
“We haven’t really exercised the mental gymnastics, the intellectual capital, on that [nuclear deterrence] yet. It’s starting. I’m pleased that it’s starting. But I wouldn’t be in favor of building too much [more military equipment] until we had that discussion . . . The challenge here is that we have to recapitalize all three [triad] legs and we don’t have the money to do it.”
That’s a lot of high-level military talent that has long supported the nuclear triad but now questions its continued affordability.
While the Air Force and Navy will continue to advocate for their legs of the triad, they are not above questioning other service’s weapons programs. As pressure builds to make tough budgetary choices, the Navy might raise questions about the Air Force legs and the Air Force will argue that the nuclear deterrent should not be housed on submarines alone.
When Dwight Eisenhower was President in the 1950’s, the former five-star general gave the Pentagon a budget ceiling and let the services fight it out. And fight it out they did by exposing the weaknesses in the other services’ programs. Given the current budget environment, history may repeat itself.
Perhaps the Pentagon will finally decide to walk on two legs rather than three.