Time for America to Rethink the Way It Nukes People

U.S. can’t afford three different methods

America’s nuclear weapons are getting old. More to the point, the submarines, rockets and planes that deliver the nukes are rusting away.

Designed during the Cold War, all three legs of the sea-, air-, and land-based nuclear “triad” need replacement fairly soon. The means spending potentially hundreds of billions of dollars on new subs, bombers and ballistic missiles to replace today’s Ohio-class boats, B-2 and B-52 bombers and Minuteman missiles.

That’s hundreds of billions of dollars we can’t afford. A sane reform strategy would consider a seemingly drastic move—entirely eliminating one leg of the triad.

Problem is, the triad holds almost religious significance for nuclear weapons theorists. In the 1950s, analysts worried that a surprise Soviet atomic strike would knock out nearly all of the Air Force’s nuclear-capable bombers.

In addition to improving the security of the bomber force, the U.S. also embarked on two other deterrent legs—land-based Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles and “boomer” submarines capable of launching rockets of their own.

In theory, we developed the triad because for redundancy. No plausible Soviet strike could knock out enough ICBMs, boomers and bombers to prevent our catastrophic retaliation.

Cold War arms control treaties ensconced the triad, setting limits on the number and characteristics of each leg and channeling procurement and innovation into established platform categories.

In short, we got used to having three different ways of dropping a nuke on Moscow. And we told ourselves we needed three different ways.

In reality, the triad resulted from bureaucratic turf fighting between the three main military services.

The Navy wanted a piece of the nuclear pie, and determined that nuclear ballistic-missile subs, based on existing attack boat hulls, could survive longer than nuclear-armed bombers launched from aircraft carriers.

The Air Force, still dominated by bomber generals, resisted ICBMs until it seemed that the Army might grab the capability.

For its part, the Army settled on short- and medium-range ballistic missiles, presumably for “tactical” purposes, which gave U.S. field artillery the capacity to destroy most of Europe. The ground combat branch no longer possesses atomic weapons.

Maintaining all three legs of the triad benefits more than just the military branches. Shipbuilders, defense contractors, legislators with local nuclear bases—the list is a long one. Even in lean years, the triad can usually defend itself from the budgetary axe … by being worth a lot of money to a lot of people.

It’s testimony to our current political dysfunction that finally we’re starting to talk about reforming the triad. Money is just that tight owing to automatic “sequestration” budget cuts.

A recent report by the California think tank RAND clarified costs for the next generation of the triad. The new SSBN-X boomer could cost up to $8 billion per boat for 10 boats. The next-gen Long Range Strike Bomber should set us back $800 million per copy for up to 100 copies. Replacing the Minuteman ICBMs is a potentially $60 billion proposition.

It’s worth emphasizing that if these replacement systems do their job, none will ever actually see combat. Nuclear weapons can deter the enemy from using his own nuclear weapons, but don’t really do anything else.

The costs aren’t just financial. The way we arrange our nukes has affected the health of the deterrent. Recent problems with the Air Force missile corps are the direct result of the bureaucratic kludges of the 1950s.

Instead of placing the missiles in the artillery like Russia and China do, the U.S. gave them to the flying branch, whose officers have little interest in sitting around in silos in Wyoming.

The Air Force no longer places any great value on the atomic mission and can no longer recruit good missile crew nor manage the missileers it has. The situation makes discipline lapses inevitable.

A new approach to nuclear deterrence should attempt to resolve the inter-service conflict associated with the triad—and should also take into account the ways the world has changed since the ’50s.

We need a credible, minimum deterrence. A posture that deters nuclear attack without encouraging an arms race.

Most importantly, the United States needs to concentrate on flexible, multipurpose platforms. The ICBM force is a Cold War relic that no longer serves any plausible purpose.

Even if China and Russia increase their nuclear capabilities, the United States should eliminate its ICBMs and focus instead on sea- and air-based deterrents.

Sixty years is a long time, and advances in missile defense between now and 2080 may render sub-launched rockets obsolete. Anti-submarine technology—in particular the ability to detect and identify submerged vessels—may also improve dramatically.

While subs will almost certainly remain more secure than land-based nukes, the next generation of undersea vessels may face greater threats than the last.

Independent naval analyst Craig Hooper has argued for ameliorating this problem by eliminating the single-purpose boomer and instead assigning nuclear deterrence to the entire fleet of Virginia-class attack submarines.

This would require the development of a new, smaller ballistic missile that fits aboard the smaller Virginias. But it could be worth it if reassigning the undersea atomic mission relieves the Navy of having to spend $100 billion on submarines whose sole job it is to hide and await Armageddon.

This would put the submarine deterrent much closer in form to that of the bomber deterrent, which has always had both conventional and nuclear responsibilities. That is to say, our B-52s and B-2s can drop atomic bombs or high explosives, making them eminently useful during non-nuclear wars.

Upgrades to the bomber force require more complex decisions. Any nuclear power with access to fighter-bombers and aerial refueling can achieve minimal deterrence. France, Israel, Pakistan, India and China all hang small nukes on small jet fighters. We could do that, too.

Still our B-2s and their nominal replacement, the new Long Range Strike Bombers, do provide long-range stealth capabilities even when they’re not just hauling atomic bombs.

So buying a new bomber is not a terrible idea. But given that our existing bombers can handle deterrence for decades to come, we could slow the pace of LRS-B acquisition, thus allowing technology to mature and potentially saving a lot of money.

Unfortunately, a strong tradition of evenly splitting the defense budget between the branches makes it politically very difficult to simply shift the money designated for, say, ICBM replacement to the Navy in order to buy new missile submarines.

In any event, the Cold War deterrence model is not longer viable, both because the technologies that characterize the triad have moved beyond the maturation point and because the U.S. no longer wishes to devote huge resources for weapons that will never see combat.

We can do better.

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