Should the Nuclear Triad Be Saved?

Nation presses ahead with wholesale upgrade as cracks appear in its value and utility

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Air Force photo / TSGT Bob Wickley

A Minuteman III missile: the tip of the nuclear spear.

The U.S. spent two generations building a nuclear triad of bombers, land-based ICBMs and missile-firing submarines to prevail in the Cold War against the Soviet Union. A generation ago, the Soviet Union went away, and we continued maintaining the triad on some kind of Strangelovian autopilot.

Now those aging weapons need to be replaced, and the Congressional Budget Office has just told us how much it’s going to cost to keep the older ones afloat while developing their replacements: $355 billion between now and 2023 (not including $74 billion getting rid of old weapons and $105 billion for missile defenses to protect against enemy missiles).

That’s a cool half-trillion dollars over the coming decade for weapons most of the world hopes are never used. It, too, is happening on autopilot. The public pays little attention to the mammoth investment it represents, and the continuing hazards of having the nation’s nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert more than 20 years after the foe they were aimed at went away.

That $355 billion to support the nation’s nuclear forces works out to $35.5 billion annually, nearly $100 million a day, $4 million an hour, $1,000 a second as far as the eye can see. And that’s only the down payment. “Annual costs are likely to continue to grow after 2023,” the CBO reports, “as production begins on replacement systems.”

Does renovating the nuclear triad make sense in a world without a nuclear-armed superpower rival, where the wonders of mutually-assured destruction can work their magic?

(MORE: Is it Time to Cut Off One Leg of the Pentagon’s Nuclear Triad?)

“I’m a believer in the triad,” General Mark Welsh, who as the Air Force chief of staff oversees two of it three legs, said last month. “I think the three legs of the triad really do give us flexibility, responsiveness and survivability in a way that you might not get with any one or two legs.”

But others think the money could be better spent elsewhere, even if it stays inside the Pentagon’s purse. “The dilemma for the military is that while spending on nuclear weapons is slated to skyrocket, the military budget has come down and will be lucky to keep pace with inflation for the remainder of the decade,” says Kingston Reif, 
director of Nuclear Non-Proliferation at the independent Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. “The current U.S. arsenal of approximately 5,000 nuclear weapons is a Cold War holdover that is increasingly irrelevant to today’s security threats, costs billions of dollars to maintain, and sucks funding from higher priority programs.”

Politically, there is no stomach to take on the nuclear theologians who insist too much is at risk to scale back the triad. The same elected officials who refuse to pass annual appropriation bills, decline to grapple with entitlements like Social Security, and kick required budgetary reforms down the road for their kids to handle, squirm when the topic is discussed. Far easier, they have concluded, for the leaders simply to salute their followers.

The whole “nuclear enterprise” — a phrase that surfaced in the Pentagon when it became clear that the Cold War atomic aura had tarnished and needed to be replated, lest it fade into history — seems adrift. Most acknowledge its shrinking deterrent value. The threat no longer is a foe with a thousand nuclear warheads, but an enemy with one, where deterrence most likely would fail to deter. Even those in charge of the weapons can sense it, according to reporting over the past year by Robert Burns of the Associated Press, who has revealed one missile officer’s report of “rot” afflicting ICBM crews and an independent assessment of “burnout” among them.

Earlier this month, the Air Force released an inspector general’s report into the conduct of the two-star general in charge of the nation’s ICBM force during an official trip to Moscow last summer. He dismayed some of his fellow Americans when he “talked loudly about the importance of his position as commander of the only operational nuclear force in the world and that he saves the world from war every day … he also started telling the story about how he has the worst morale of any airmen in the Air Force.”

(MORE: Owner’s Guide: How to Use Your Nuclear Weapons)

Money may be needed to refurbish the nuclear enterprise, but a real-world mission is even more vital to bolster the morale of those entrusted with its care.

Perhaps the airmen are simply channeling what happened in the Arizona desert shortly before Christmas. Air Force personnel at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base attacked a B-52 Stratofortress with a circular saw. After 45 minutes, they had sliced off its tail.

“This is a bittersweet moment in my life,” retired Air Force general Earl O’Loughlin, a one-time B-52 pilot, said at the Dec. 19 event, according to an Air Force account. “To be able to come out here and watch you cut the tail off of it.”

A crane slowly lowered the tail into a custom-made cradle, 30 degrees off center and six feet (2m) from the rest of the bomber. The goal: to prove to Russian satellites overhead that the B-52G — the last of 39 to be so butchered under the New START Treaty with Moscow — is now worthless.

"The final elimination of a B-52G"

Air Force photo / Staff Sgt. Angela Ruiz

End of the Road: A B-52 is cut into pieces Dec. 19.

13 comments
jobscabin
jobscabin

I vote against the Triad. Wasteful spending. Corporate welfare for the MIC. 40 million American children go to bed hungry every day while stockholders of Martin Marietta get richer and richer. Reduce the arsenal by 90 %. Declare the Big Bomb Industry out of date. Make them manufacture something else.

Sibir_Russia
Sibir_Russia

In the world only two countries have a full-fledged nuclear triad. Russia has a huge territory from Europe to Asia. My country  has the right of veto in the United Nations as the country of the winner of the World War II. We possesses huge reserves of oil, gas and fresh water. Our nuclear triad is the weapon of deterrence.   

Russia is prepared to assume its share of responsibility for the current global state of affairs. We have no great-power ambitions, nor do we suffer from inferiority complex. We are committed to finding solutions to existing problems based on the rule of international law, balance of interests, and common sense. To this end, we actively participate in various collective mechanisms for managing international relations at the global and regional levels, including, first of all, the UN, but also G8, G20, CIS, SCO, BRICS and others. This network diplomacy reflects the emergence of a new polycentric world order which would be more equitable, democratic and sustainable.

Sergey LAVROV, Russian Foreign Minister: "All of America's friends -- and we regard ourselves as ones -- should help the United States to make a "soft landing" in multipolar reality.  In relations with the United States, we find ourselves recalling the proverb that "a friend in need is a friend indeed." How should America's true friends behave in the prevailing situation? Two scenarios are conceivable. First: Put a shoulder to the wheel and unconditionally participate in all America's ventures. Second: Take a principled stance proceeding from the true interests of partnership and international community in general. Briefly then, we should be telling the truth. As Chancellor Aleksand Mikhaylovich Gorchakov pointed out in his day, "the best way to live in full accord with all governments is not to conceal our thoughts." Not everyone will dare to take this stance. Therefore, this burden is for those who can bear it. Russia does not aspire to the status of a superpower, including an energy superpower. We are absolutely happy with what we have: The position of one of the world's leading states. We do not want others to obey us; we want them to listen to us and to take our opinions into account. Russia has no interests that are incompatible with the international community's interests. We will not allow ourselves to be drawn into confrontation. We are ready to work with others to create a just and democratic world order that guarantees security and prosperity for all, not just for the chosen ones."

vm02232020
vm02232020

I would not too quick to disarm and dismantle a plan that has worked without something better in it's place.  I hope we are smart enough to realize that the world changes and not all for the better.

dwol001
dwol001

The Triad is a defense system that we need in this day and age.  Too many unknowns out there in the world, if terrorist or rogue states realize that we will maintain a nuclear deterrent thus ensuring our safety and way of life.  We are a role model of the world, other countries want to emulate our lifestyle.

cent-fan
cent-fan

I'm sure the missile silos are far more of a danger to us than they are to an outside country day to day.  I have no confidence that any more than half or even a third of them would reach their assigned targets after failing to ignite, blowing up in the silo, blowing up shortly after launch, losing control shorty after launch, failing to find the target, failing to find the correct target, failing to release the payload, or failure of the payload to work. 


I figure six nuclear explosions are enough to economically cripple any country in the world including ours.  A few ports, a few important population centers, an oil hub, a food hub... it wouldn't take much.  So, what is that, half the nuclear payload of a missile submarine (maybe more like 20% of the payload)?  One nuclear missile sub and we destroy an enemy... and most of our potential enemies couldn't find our subs even if they drained the ocean.

PaulDirks
PaulDirks

We could always do a back-of-the-envelope calculation to determine how many warheads it would take to render our planet uninhabitable and then reduce our arsenal to that number minus one.


eagle11772
eagle11772

I vote FOR the triad.  And we need NEW bombers ( a B-3 ? ) and a continued production of Virginia-class submarines, a follow-on to the Ohio-class boomers, and I would also like to see development of the "arsenal ship" which would be armed with 500 cruise missiles with a mix of conventional warheads, and nuclear warheads.   How will we pay for it ?  REPEAL THE MARXIST-LENINIST-OBAMANIACIST-STALINIST OBAMACARE !

Bullsgt
Bullsgt

As an advocate of "peace thru superior firepower" even I have to admit our nuclear deterrent is out of date and a waste of resources.  Those funds could easily be used for infrastructure, health care, education, pay the national debt down or god forbid we reduce tax's. A simple answer to some of our issues that will never happen. 

TimRobinsonAus
TimRobinsonAus

America - home of the paranoid & the land of the terrifying! You are all absolute blind to sit back and ask yourself 'do I as a citizen need a $2,000 chunk of your taxes put towards the least relevant asset EACH and EVERY year minimum, (plus cost over runs and blow outs... ) when the country I live in has no real universal healthcare, corporate manipulation that accepts an <$8 minimum wage and lobbyists who run the nation'

When I was young every one wanted to go to the US, now the thought makes most I know nauseous or fearful of being blown away.... You can keep that, and your triple layer nukes

cent-fan
cent-fan

@PaulDirks We need the last one for the coc2roaches.  No way I want them left to laugh at us.


(Really?  The original spelling of coc2roaches is under review or something?)

Sibir_Russia
Sibir_Russia

@eagle11772@Sibir_Russia

Minister of defence of the USA, an ardent anti-Soviet and Russophobe James Forrestal, in 1949, jumped out of the window shouting: "Russians coming!" Crashed, poor fellow, death...