Why the U.S. Needs the Nuclear Triad

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Why the U.S. needs a 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.

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