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Why the U.S. Needs the Nuclear Triad

By Elbridge Colby

Mark Thompson makes the case on the Time blog that the United States should downgrade the Triad of strategic nuclear delivery systems to a Dyad (or perhaps, implicitly, even a Monad) because, he argues, the modernization of all three legs is unnecessary and too costly. Quoting Jeffrey Richardson of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Thompson contends that fielding three independent methods of delivering strategic nuclear weapons reflects a way of thinking “unconstrained by fiscal resources” and dedicated to pursuit of “a risk-free world.”

Thompson is right to emphasize the importance of strategic trade-offs and cost concerns – but he’s picking on the wrong target when he goes after the Triad.

First off, while Thompson is right to underline the vital importance of deploying systems that can survive a surprise attack, he has a peculiarly complacent view of the survivability challenge. While he rightly notes that there does not appear to be a plausible near-term threat to U.S. ballistic missile submarines while on station, he neglects to mention that Navy planners have to consider how the replacement to today’s Ohio class can survive out to 2080, when the last of the replacements is scheduled to be retired(pdf). History is chock full of the introduction of transformative technologies that have rendered formerly impressive systems vulnerable, and even obsolete. Having two other legs of the Triad provides cushioning against such breakthroughs.

Furthermore, added survivability is not the only advantage the Triad offers. Fielding three legs also provides insurance against technical malfunctions in one or two of the legs and gives policymakers a menu of diplomatic signaling options, to name a couple of other virtues.

Thompson might have more of a point if these advantages had to be bought at an impoverishing price. But the fact is that the Triad – and the nuclear enterprise as a whole – are pretty cheap (at least in defense budget terms!). As Thompson himself relates, an Air Force Association report estimated that the Triad would cost $216 billion to recapitalize – over forty years. That’s about five and a half billion dollars a year, which is peanuts when stacked up against the size of the overall defense budget. To take the Administration’s FY2012 proposed budget as a benchmark, this amount would constitute 1/100th of the total base budget of $553.1 billion – not even counting the $117.8 billion war supplemental.

Even the all-in cost of the entire nuclear weapons enterprise – estimated by one analyst (pdf) to be $29.093 billion for nuclear forces in FY2008. Furthermore, the system that Thompson justifiably prefers, the SSBNs, are likely to continue to be by far the most expensive of the Triad. Indeed, maintaining a nuclear-capable bomber leg would just involve replacing the air-launched cruise missile and/or tacking a nuclear capability on to the next-generation heavy bomber the Administration plans to build anyway. And a new set of ICBMs, due to come online after around 2030, could simply be put right back in the holes that the Minutemans have been sitting in for the last few decades unless a different basing mode is decided upon. Even then, however, mobile ICBMs are likely to be a lot cheaper than the boomers.

In an age of austerity and shifting power balances, making the right trade-offs in defense programs is vital. But given that secure and effective nuclear deterrence can be bought for a relative pittance, why mess with it?

Elbridge Colby has served in several national security positions with the U.S. Government, most recently with the Department of Defense working on the follow-on to the START Treaty and as an expert adviser to the Congressional Strategic Posture Commission. The views expressed here are his own.