As the new administration and Congress prepare to take a critical look at the nuclear triad and overall need for nuclear modernization, Adm. Charles A. Richard, the head of U.S. Strategic Command, said during testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee, that while he welcomes a review of the nuclear posture, cutting the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) force and shifting to a “dyad” approach would require the military to completely reshape operations.
“What is not often recognized is that we don’t have a triad day-to-day, right. The bombers are not available to us,” Richard said. “We chose to take them off alert as a type of peace dividend after the Cold War, so day-to-day all you have is basically a dyad. Basic design criteria in the triad is that you cannot allow a failure of any one leg of the triad to prevent you from being able to do everything the President has ordered you to do.
“If you don’t have intercontinental ballistic missiles, we can’t meet that criteria. You are completely dependent on the submarine leg, and I’ve already told the Secretary of Defense that under those conditions I would request to re-alert the bombers.”
According to Air Force Magazine, some on Capitol Hill have questioned the need for the Air Force’s Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent—the replacement of the aging Minuteman III ICBM and its infrastructure.
Richard defended the need for this modernization in advance of budget deliberations.
There is “no operational margin” left in the ICBM leg of the triad, Richard said, since all of it was depleted as the nation delayed modernization. The current ICBM force is “at risk of losing credibility” in the eyes of potential adversaries, and even at risk of “not working at all” against a pacing threat.
“We could reach a point where no amount of money” would mitigate that risk, Richard said.
“Nothing lasts forever,” Richard said. “You cannot indefinitely life-extend anything. I cannot deter with the leftovers of the Cold War forever. … I need a weapons system that will actually work and actually make it to the target.”
At the same time, China has been working to build its nuclear stockpile and modernize. “In the very near term, China will possess a capable triad,” he said.
“My best military advice is to offer caution, observe their actions, which speak louder than words, take steps to credibly deter armed conflict, and reject Chinese policies or actions that threaten the international rules-based order or undermine regional and global stability,” Richard wrote in prepared testimony. “We must remain postured to counter Chinese coercion and subversion, assure our regional allies and partners, and protect our national security interests as international law allows.”
The nuclear triad
As explained by Lt. Col. Justin Grieve, 509th Operations Support Squadron commander , in the article The nuclear triad, the nuclear triad of the US consists of a portion of the Air Force bomber fleet, Air Force inter-continental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), and the US Navy’s submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs). These three components share many attributes and capabilities, but they are inherently unique. It is the unique and complimentary nature of these forces that have stood the test of time. The flexibility of the bomber force, the robust nature of the ICBM force, and the survivability of the SLBM force are the key elements that make the nuclear triad essential and indispensable.
Flexible, robust and survivable – these three simple words perfectly describe the nuclear triad.
The entire fleet of twenty B-2 Spirit bombers is nuclear capable. A larger number of B-52 Stratofortress bombers, also known as (aka) “BUFF”, are nuclear capable, but there are B-52s in use today, on the ramps at Barksdale AFB, Louisiana, and Minot AFB, North Dakota, that are no longer nuclear capable. This was accomplished by removing some internal hardware and is accompanied by minor external changes to simplify treaty verification processes. The B-1 Lancer, aka “Bone”, was a nuclear-capable bomber until the mid-1990s. Today, the B-1s at Dyess AFB, Texas, and Ellsworth AFB, South Dakota, only support the conventional, non-nuclear, mission. Note, there are also limited numbers of fighter aircraft in United States Air Forces in Europe (USAFE) that are nuclear capable as well.
The Air Force’s ICBM force consists of 450 in-ground missile silos at Minot AFB, Malmstrom AFB, Montana, and Francis E. Warren AFB, Wyoming. Not all of the silos are filled in accordance with agreements made between the U.S. and Russia in the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). The missile fields of Minot AFB and Malmstrom AFB cover great distances in both North Dakota and Montana, respectively, while Francis E. Warren AFB stretches from the Southeast corner of Wyoming into portions of both Colorado and Nebraska.
The ICBM force, geographically separated and hardened, is also very visible — providing a credible and extremely-robust deterrent. Without the missile fields complicating and overwhelming the targeting efforts of potential adversaries, the nation would be left with only five strategic targets (three nuclear bomber bases and two nuclear submarine bases). This change in calculus could embolden potential adversaries and would dramatically decrease the nation’s deterrence capability.
The ICBM force has been on alert since 1959 and represents an immediate response option for the nation. Unlike the bomber, no generation spin-up is required.
The robust nature of the ICBM force is directly linked to the immediate alert posture and challenging tactical problem it presents to our adversaries, and is essential to the success of the nuclear triad.
The US Navy’s SLBM force is based out of two locations — Naval Base Kitsap, Washington, for the Pacific Ocean, and Kings Bay, Georgia, for the Atlantic Ocean. Unlike both the bomber and ICBM forces, the SLBM force thrives on its lack of visibility.
The survivable nature of the SLBM force provides a stabilizing effect. It ensures a retaliatory strike capability and actually serves to minimize the need for a rapid decision to “use or lose” ICBM and bomber forces. The SLBM force provides enhanced security for the nation and is essential to the nuclear triad and deterrence operations.
Flexible, robust and survivable — these three simple words perfectly, and simply, describe the nuclear triad. Each component is critical and complimentary for nuclear deterrence.
Photo credit: SSgt. Phil Schmitten / U.S. Air Force
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