Jeffrey LewisGates to Triad: Drop Dead

Is the Triad a Cold War relic, like Ice Station Zebra?

I have long thought that a significant reduction in nuclear weapons — say 1000 or fewer deployed warheads — would require not merely downloading of warheads, but cuts to force structure and a possible end to the triad (see page 93).

One reason for cutting warheads rather than force structure is Bush faced a tougher adversary than the Soviets: Congress. When the U.S. Air Force tried to reduce the number of B-52H bombers to 56, Congress said nyet.

If President-elect Obama intends to make good on his promise to talk about further reductions with the Russians, he has to consider cutting force structure.

This could spell the end of the triad. USAF is the obvious target. It has been a poor steward of its nuclear arms, from the mishandling of weapons at Minot AFB, S.D., to shipping Minuteman III nose cones to Taiwan. The Air Force nuclear enterprise is a mess at precisely the time defense analysts are trying to figure out why the U.S. needs more than just a survivable submarine force.

Recently, however, smart people had convinced me that the triad is an immutable feature of US nuclear weapons policy.

From the “Tiger Team” force structure options prepared for the Strategic Posture Commission to other exercises, I had begun to suspect that some people would maintain a triad at all costs. If we had three weapons, one would sail around at sea, one would stand alert on an ICBM and one would be stashed in a bunker just off the tarmac of a bomber base. Cost per deployed warhead be damned.

So, imagine my surprise, when Bob Gates took dead aim at the triad and, in particular, the bomber leg, at at Maxwell Air Force Base:

You know, there are a lot of decisions that I made that I haven’t talked about publicly. For example, I decided not to make any change in the 76 deployed B-52s. That force will remain.

But the question is, depending on where post START ends up, if we go down significantly in the number of nuclear weapons that we have deployed, the question is whether the traditional triad makes sense anymore and I think we have to address that.


Hat tip: Marc V. Schanz for Bomber Musings.


  1. FSB

    Well, Gates is smart. He knows we are heading to Zero, and having a triad is impossible with zero nukes.

  2. Jeffrey Lewis (History)

    Here is a rough draft of the piece that ended up in Defense 2009. You can see the crap I put editors through!

    End of the Triad?

    Jeffrey Lewis

    Maybe you’ve seen the Cold War thriller Ice Station Zebra with Rock Hudson, Ernest Borgnine and NFL great Jim Brown. A US submarine races to recover a Soviet satellite that, using pilfered Western technology, had photographed the location of every US missile silo (and, by accident, all the Soviet ones, too). The side that recovered the film first would have a dramatic leg up in the arms race. Fantastic movie.

    In real life, however, the United States took steps to prevent being vulnerable in the event of a single, dramatic technological breakthrough by the bad guys — whether it was the advent of satellites or the elusive blue-green laser that would make the seas transparent. First and foremost was the nuclear triad – the arsenal of bombers, missiles and ballistic missile submarines that provided the United States nuclear arsenal with diversity in case one leg was compromised.

    Today, however, things are a little different. Even with the recent conflict over Georgia, both sides spend a lot more time worrying about how to work together to secure loose nuclear material and bring their nuclear stockpiles down from Cold War numbers.

    Even so, US-Russian arms reductions are entering a difficult phase. When the Bush Administration decided in 2002 to cut the number of operational deployed nuclear warheads to between 1700-2200, it did so largely by removing warheads from existing delivery vehicles. Although the United States has retired some missiles, submarines and bombers, the 2012 strategic nuclear force structure is still expected to be quite large: 14 Ohio-class SSBNs, 450 Minuteman III ICBMs, 19 B2 bombers and 72 B-52 bombers. Although the US will operationally deploy about 2,200 strategic nuclear warheads, we could add many, many more. If one were to apply START counting rules, which are a rough rule of thumb for how many nuclear weapons the ICBMs and SLBMs could carry, the total force would count as 4,817 warheads.

    The Bush Administration, in essence, engaged in a massive downloading of warheads, while deferring politically painful decisions on cutting force structure. That’s because Bush faced a much tougher adversary than Soviets like Andrei Gromyko. He had to deal with the US Congress. When the Air Force did try to reduce the number of B-52H bombers to 56, Congress said nyet.

    If President Barack Obama intends to make good on his promise for further reductions with the Russians, he faces tough decisions about not just off-loading warheads, but actually cutting force structure. This could spell the end of the triad, in any meaningful sense.

    The Air Force – with the missile and bomber missions – seems like the obvious candidate. The Air Force has been a poor steward of its nuclear weapons, from the mishandling of nuclear weapons at Minot Air Force Base to shipping Minuteman III nose cones to Taiwan. The Air Force nuclear enterprise is a mess at precisely the time when defense analysts are trying to figure out why the United States needs more than just a survivable submarine force, let alone a triad.

    That’s not to say that Senators and Representatives who have bombers, missiles or both in the states are going to go quietly into that dark night. In fact, Congress used the Air Force’s lack of attention to nuclear weapons issues as a reason to add a combat coded squadron of B-52s, allowing one unit to rotate the nuclear mission.

    Something is going to have to give – and seems to me the triad, like Ice Station Zebra, is increasingly looking like a relic from the Cold War.

  3. Andrew Tubbiolo (History)

    Bombers made no sense in the post R-36/Trident II world. So I’d say a nuclear role for strategic nuclear bombing has been a relic since 1979. If it were up to me I’d dump the B-2, and B-1. Re-engine the B-52 and declare what it has been doing for the past 20 years, as a massive conventional bomber. As a counter argument to my own statement might it be better to de-alert all missiles and have the remaining alert force on bombers? Bombers take a long time to get to target, and can be recalled…. That is so long as the CRM-114 is not damaged…..

  4. George William Herbert (History)

    Bombers are in fact the least likely to go completely away, though a dedicated nuclear force might.

    Even “conventional” mission bombers can load up a rack of B61s and go off to glow in extremis, and the US would be unlikely to take that option away completely as long as we deploy strategic bombers for conventional purposes.

    Proposals to graft a conventional mission onto ICBMs or SLBMs are possible, as discussed elsewhere, but not likely to make the bomber mission fall away completely.

  5. Major Lemon (History)

    Get rid of the Triad and what are you left with? Instability. The greater likelyhood of war in years to come as America’s enemies may one day calculate that a first strike against the United States without it’s B52s or with a greatly reduced ICBM force may be a risk worth taking. Getting rid of the Triad without an effective subsitute is lunacy, but with Obama, possibly the worst President since Carter in the White House, what else must we expect?

  6. bradley laing (History)

    What part of the triad has the most profitable spin offs in foriegn sales?

    The effort to raise the troop ship “Normandie” in 1943 from New York Harbor trained hundreds of navy divers, who performed well in clearing european harbors and salvaging sunken war material.

    (Even though, the “Normandie” was never rebuilt—by the time it was raised it needed new engines, and engines were needed for new warships.)

  7. BJR

    Why are those F-4s attacking Tiger Fish 3?

  8. Joseph Logan (History)

    It is odd to me how often the “three-legged stool” metaphor shows up in organizations of all kinds. There are often post-hoc rationalizations, but it is a persistent mental model.

  9. Distiller (History)

    Aaah! The Air Force staff is populated by a bunch of unimaginative rugrats and yes-men.

    Instead of occupying the heavy bombers with the “the Air Force is relevant too” offensive strategic deterrence mission, they would have a wonderful AND useful playing field in defensive strategic deterrence.

    Taking the bombers, putting onto them a PAC-3/THAAD-based airborne KEI for boost-phase intercepts, an AESA radar doubling as electromagnetic gun, and some JASSM-ER, those bombers would be a very welcome Air Force contribution to NMD, with a serious boost-phase intercept capability, and instant electromagnetic and kinetic strike options against the enemy launch complex.

    Having that in the neighbourhood of a crises 24/7/365 like the old “Chrome Dome” would actually be a useful Air Force mission.
    And maybe, just maybe, their ego would increase enough so that they wouldn’t need to steal C-27J from the Army, and even allow their UAVs to land autonomously.

  10. yousaf

    the National Security Archive has an interesting release relevant to this discussion.

    With their capability to destroy key Soviet targets, Burke believed, the virtually undetectable and invulnerable Polaris submarines could “inflict terrible punishment” and deter Moscow from launching a surprise attack on the United States or its allies. By contrast, Burke saw land-based missile and bombers as vulnerable to attack, which made the U.S.-Soviet nuclear relationship dangerously unstable. While he did not propose eliminating all strategic bombers and ICBMs, he believed that a force of about 40 Polaris submarines (16 missiles each) was a reasonable answer to the question “how much is enough?” Although the Kennedy administration rejected Burke’s concept, years later former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara revived it by arguing that 400 nuclear weapons were “enough” to deter a Soviet attack.

  11. Josh (History)

    Ah, yes, the all-important CRM-114!

    The bombers aren’t going away soon — we keep using them to, you know, drop bombs. But conceivably, the nuclear gravity bombs and cruise missiles could be eliminated someday.

    Dual-capable bombers do have an interesting feature that ICBMs and SSBNs do not: they can be moved into theater, with publicity, to send a signal. For example, when U.S. forces massed in the Gulf region in 2003, long-range bombers deployed to Guam, apparently to send a signal to the North Koreans: don’t even think about it!

    Whether that message was more helpful than not, and whether it was necessary in the first place, are different questions. But for whatever it’s worth, the bombers and their weapons do provide a unique capability.

    Now, as for why being annihilated by submarine-launched warheads would be less scary than being annihilated by a combination of sub-launched and land-based warheads, with some air-dropped or air-launched warheads thrown into the mix, well, I must confess, it eludes me.

  12. anon (History)

    Politically, taking the bombers out of the nuclear mission is the easiest way to step out of the triad. The bombers don’t have to (and won’t) go away, they’ll just revert to conventional-only missions, and the bases can stay intact (which pleases the folks in North Dakota and Lousiana). Problem is that, in present circustances, bombers are probably the most flexible strategic deterrent. As Josh said, they can signal resolve in a way ICs and SLs cannot do; they show up and look mean. They also can deliver weapons one at a time against discreet targets, with a man in the loop to confirm the target, and the ability to back off if the conditions change. In a world where a nuclear response is likely to call for one or a few warheads hitting discreet targets (rather than a massive response to a major attack), this looks much better than unloading a boat of Tridents.

    I’ll wager, though, that the politics will win, and the bombers will come out of the nuclear mission, which is something STRATCOM suggested during the last NPR.

  13. Andrew Tubbiolo (History)

    Maj Lemon has a point I’d like to modify. I would not say that reducing to zero weapons would increase the chances of a cheating party to execute a surprise nuclear attack. I do think you could verify reductions to zero at huge cost to national sovereignty and freedom of industrial enterprise. I do think it increases the chances of conventional war between industrial states. Imagine ourselves 15 years from now in a nuclear free world where the Russians are massing forces to rescue the oppressed ethnic Russians in Ukraine. Poland is nervous, Hungary is shaking in their sneakers and the Baltic Republics are starting a forced expulsion of Russians. I think the presence of the doomsday option would prevent Europe from getting this close to war. I think the existence of nuclear weapons pushes states to avoid hostilities long before things start getting out of control. However, in a nuclear free world I think many nations would feel free push a crisis far more than they would if threatened with eventual nuclear combat. Once you have the onset of a real war, the treaties break down and suddenly the world finds itself re-endowed with nuclear weapons owned by people who are engaged in combat and have forgotten what it means to live under the nuclear sword.

  14. AWR (History)

    This emerging debate reminds me of the old joke that what we need to supersede the ALCMs, SLCMs, and GLCMs is the Fast Undetectable Cruise Missile.

  15. FSB

    Who, and what behavior, are we (and Russians) deterring with these weapons?

    What does Russia have that would make the possible retaliation of even 10 nukes, let alone 1000, a worthwhile gamble?

    What do we have that would make the same gamble worthwhile for the Russians?

    10-30 nukes each — just in subs — would have the same “deterrent” effect as 1000, 2000, 10,000, 60,0000 in a stupid money-hog tax-and-spend defense-welfare triad.

  16. lars

    GWH: Retasking ICBM’s sounds extremely destabilizing and dangerous. How would any MAD opponents/partners know the difference between a conventional and nuclear launch?

  17. Andrew Tubbiolo (History)

    In a world with nuclear peers, nuclear military posture is tightly linked to conventional posture. So what is deterred? Conventional forces posture and deployment. Restrictions on freedom to deploy and posture drives restrictions on policy. Can you do that with a much smaller nuclear force? Of course. We should have been building down far more than we have. Maybe even take all forces off of alert. But I worry about the loss of constraints in a world of zero nuclear weapons. In a nuclear free world all the major powers would be free to act like the US has been acting for the past 8 years.

  18. Carey Sublette

    George William Herbert’s post does suggest one way to trim back the air breathing leg of the triad, while still preserving the conventional mission: eliminate nuclear gravity bombs.

    Being the extraordinarily potent high value weapon that nukes are, carried by an even more costly and scarce delivery platform, it seems odd and anachronistic to deliver them as a free fall weapon. Stand-off delivery weapons offer much greater operational flexibility and safer delivery.

    The elimination of nuclear gravity bombs could be implemented in such a way that only a small part of the bomber fleet was equipped to carry the stand-off replacements. The requirements for a conventional bomber force could thus be decoupled from the size of the nuclear force structure.

  19. More pork please! (History)

    [ad hominem deleted] Bombers add nothing to the deterrence of a first strike. It is our second strike capability which deters first strikes, and our SLBMs are very good second strike weapons.

  20. George William Herbert (History)

    lars asks about destabilization by conventional ICBMs…

    Yes, that’s an obvious drawback. Much talked about. Despite which, there are serious ongoing plans looking at such things, from less formal older projects to the DARPA / USAF FALCON program of a few years ago (and ongoing until recently hypersonics program). Discussions about conventional warhead Tridents, etc.

    The destabilization issues, including other countries mistaking a CICBM for a nuclear ICBM, have been much talked about and never entirely resolved, though solutions to some of these have been proposed, such as international operations centers (representatives present from all nuclear powers), other observer missions, clear geographical separation of launcher locations.

    It’s not clear to me that the problems rule out their employment – I was the launch vehicle designer on a FALCON SLV bid, and we proposed launching south out of Vandenberg to avoid overflights of people who might fire nukes back after misinterpreting things, even though that ate about half the payload. But it clearly has serious open questions and may not be “safe enough” from a crisis safety point of view, even with mitigations such as southbound launch and international observers and the like.

  21. James (History)

    But there is another destabilization issue associated with CICBMs: in the end, nations have a right to develop any weapon that might be used against them.

    ICBM development is associated with nuclear weapons programs and considerable effort is made to hamper those who seek to acquire them. If CICBMs are deployed by the wealthy states it may spark a much greater interest in ICBM production worldwide, with a commensurate cynicism about Western attempts to prevent such development.

    The bottom line is that Prompt Global Strike is a solution in search of a problem, with much strategic baggage attached to it. If CICBMs become standard kit among the world’s armies the security of the US is not enhanced, but greatly diminished. The US should be working to marginalize ICBMs instead of promoting them.

  22. Azr@el (History)

    Wow, never realized the Buff was such a sacred cow, but my gosh I’ve never seen this many boil out of the woodwork. Well let me put some fanboy’s overactive imaginations to rest; all B-52’s have long been removed from the SIOP due to their proclivity to fall out of the sky when sams are present. The B1-b is a hanger queen that never quite got over it’s teething; again does not fly SIOP. And the B-2 was always envisioned as a first strike platform to decimate Soviet road mobile ICBM’s. As everyone discovered in U.S.-Iraq 91, this was an unattainable goal. End of the day; Jet bombers are as significant in the nuclear strategic equation as sailing ships of the line were in the Washington Naval Treaty.

    Due to the decreased CEP of modern weapons, the only effective strategic delivery platforms at this time are road mobile ICBMs and SLBMs. Some may wish to call this “unstable” thru some juvenile oversimplification of combined arms warfare but the rest of us will just have to live with this reality.If this should be unsatisfying in the eyes of those who long for a “trinity” or “triad”, may I be so bold as to nominate broad based internet diplomacy for the candidacy of the “missing” leg. It travels at the speed of light, far in excess of subsonic bombers, it has the ability to strip away the fear that animates so many fanboys, something which the strum of a B-52 engine never quite manages and who knows it might make the world a little nicer place to spend a life or two.

  23. anon (History)

    B-52s have not been removed from U.S. nuclear warplans (the SIOP no longer exists, though). It is true they are vulnerable to SAMs, but that’s why they are not equipped with gravity bombs. They carry cruise missiles, and can deliver them from a distance that exceeds the range of the SAMs.

  24. Azr@el (History)

    Hmmm, the ASM is being retired, the ALCMs went conventional and the SRAMs are past their shelf life. So unless their is a “super secret” nuclear cruise missile program then the BUFFs only have atomic and conventional gravity bombs or purely conventional standoff weapons.

  25. anon (History)

    Only a portion of the ALCM force went conventional; more than 350 remain with nuclear warheads.

  26. Distiller (History)

    AGM-86B are still in the arsenal. Current plan seems to be to keep 300 of them active in Minot, plus more than 200 in reserve.

  27. bobbymike (History)

    Bombers can go away our deterrent would survive with a missile only force. But the land based force needs to be immediately modernized. 500 single warhead missiles (Midgetman anyone) 250 in superhard silos and 250 on mobile launchers.

    However, that said there is really NO strategic rationale to cut below SORT levels of 1700 to 2200 warheads. Saying we are cutting weapons and going to zero, eventually, is purely “soundbite” material. It does not make us more safe and “might” make us less safe.

  28. John Bragg (History)

    I think the planners would want to keep a few (even one) B-2s on nuclear standby.

    For a pre-emptive “counterproliferation” strike against anyone but Russia, one or two B-2s would “do the job” without scaring the Russians into accidentally starting Armageddon.

    REminds me of the old fake McDonnell-Douglas questionairre. “How did you become aware of the US strike on Beserkistan?” “Saw mushroom cloud over Al-Beseeinya, drew conclusions.”

  29. Paulus

    Bobbymike, why bother with modernizing the land-based ICBM force? We can scrap that as well, it doesn’t give us anything that we can’t already do with SSBNs (and the Navy has talked of 10m CEPs with GPS aided trajectory shaping vehicles), and in the event of a strategic nuclear exchange with Russia, the silos will just serve to attract large and dirty surface bursts on American soil.

    Also, what strategic rationale is there to remain at SORT levels? What does 1700 warheads buy us for deterrence that one hundred warheads won’t?

  30. Azr@el (History)

    The PRC effectively deters both the U.S. and Russia with less than a hundred JL2 SLBM’s and various ICBM’s. France, the UK and Israel each have about 200 nuclear weapons a piece, with fewer deployed. Consider a single Ohio class SSBN can carry 24 trident II MIRV buses with a combined warhead count of 192 nuclear warheads. We have 18 Ohio class SSBN’s in operation. 6 with a 1/3 to sea ratio would probably be a sufficient replacement to the triad and far more cost effective.