Jeffrey LewisThe Hunt for Small Potatoes

In April 2009, Bob Gates openly mused about eliminating the Triad.  I was a little surprised, to say the least.

Now, he’s gone and done it again.

Gates stopped openly musing about eliminating a leg of the triad once the Obama Administration chose to make the Nuclear Posture Review a continuity document that would reinforce ratification efforts for the New START treaty — and the hefty modernization price tag that accompanied the treaty.

Now, Gates is at it again, suggesting that the Obama Administration should consider eliminating a leg of the Triad:

Q:  … And Mr. Secretary, going back to the budget, last time you raised the nuclear triad modernization.  Would you look at eliminating one leg of the triad as a big cost savings and — or is that kind of thing off the table?


SEC. GATES:  I would just repeat, in essence, what I said before on the budget issues.  If the political leadership of this country decides that it must reduce the investment in defense by hundreds of billions of dollars, then I don’t think we can afford to have anything that’s off the table.

I find this curious.  On one hand, the Triad is a sacred cow and, well, I think sacred cows make tasty burgers.  But cost-savings?

I have always been convinced by the argument that David Mosher made is his epic The Hunt for Small Potatoes (subtitled “Savings in Nuclear Deterrence Forces” in Holding the Line: U.S. Defense Alternatives for the 21st Century). The likely savings from further force cuts in US nuclear forces are likely to be quite small, especially compared to spending on missile defense and other big ticket items.

I find it hard to believe that eliminating, say, the bomber leg would generate large savings.

(By the way, for a defense of the capabilities offered by maintaining a bomber leg in the Triad, see: Bridge Colby and Tom Moore, Maintaining the Triad in Armed Forces Journal.)



  1. RyanCrierie (History)

    My take is that the ICBM force will be the first to go. We already eliminated the most modern ICBM — the Peacekeeper a while ago, and downloaded our remaining missiles to single warheads, making them a very cost-ineffective method of delivering nukes.

    Additionally, the location of our ICBM fields were predicated by our needs to provide reasonable firing azimuths towards their likely targets in the Soviet Union. With today’s much more multipolar world, the ICBM force is less useful than it was — how do you for example launch a Minuteman III against an Iranian or Pakistani target without causing China or Russia to become very concerned?

    The bombers can fly around ‘tense’ areas, while the SSBN force can deploy around the world for optimal launch azimuths against whatever target we may want; but the ICBM’s can’t easily do that, due to our termination of every single mobile ICBM project we have undertaken.

    • Allen Thomson (History)

      I agree with RyanCrierie. If one leg had to go, it should logically be the ICBM force. SLBMs pretty much do the same thing, but better. Bombers are complementary in their capabilities, and, in the regrettable nukewar context of this discussion, should be kept.

      If another USSR-equivalent enemy should arise, not having all those ICBM silos inviting many hundred many-hundred-kiloton surface bursts on CONUS might be also considered desirable. At least a bit desirable. Not that many people in the US and Canada would be around to care, of course.

    • Charles (History)

      If they’re the first to go, then some good could come from this: I might be able to buy that missile silo that I always wanted to convert into a home…

  2. Col Bat Guano (History)

    Ryan, your middle paragraph is somewhat valid.

    Your first paragraph is largely specious. ICBMs are a rather inexpensive part of the Triad, compared to SSBNs. Don’t even bother to discuss the bomber component, as they are dual-role.

    In your third paragraph your last half of the sentence makes very little sense…mobile ICBMs will be size-constrained and therefore range-constrained and would therefore not likely have the flexibility you desire.

  3. RyanCrierie (History)

    As for Colby and Moore’s contention that the USAF needs a new nuclear armed cruise missile to maintain the viability of the B-52H as a nuclear bomber, in all actuality, such a thing isn’t needed, as advances in technology have rendered the need for a dedicated nuclear cruise missile obsolete.

    Due to the large proliferation of cheap and cheerful conventional cruise missiles such as Tactical Tomahawk, JASSM-ER, there’s little need for a dedicated nuclear cruise that will sit in storage for decades before it is fired, if ever.

    Better results for your investment can be obtained from medium range cruise missiles that you can pack onto everything and can be fired at everything from Quadhaffi’s bunker to random trucks in the Sudan, ensuring a fresh inventory turnover and cheap support costs due to wide deployment.

    For example, you could use a wave of B-1Bs armed with JASSM-ERs to destroy radar installations and other air defense locations such as C3I centers or airfields to open up a path for the nuclear armed B-2As and B-52Hs to drop gravity bombs on their primary targets.

    Relying on conventional cruise missiles for the opening salvo of peeling apart air defenses also has other beneficial effects. For one, since dropping a gravity bomb occurs within 20-30 miles of the target (we do not know if nuclear gravity bombs have received GPS guidance kits yet), it means that there is a much wider zone of ‘call them back’ than with a completely nuclear opening salvo.

    For example, it’s easier to paper over the problems in international relations that occur when you blow up airfields with conventional submunition missiles, than it is to paper over obliterating them with a nuclear tipped missile. It also gives the opponent one last chance to capitulate before nuclear release, when he sees his air defenses being taken apart conventionally.

  4. RyanCrierie (History)

    Additionally, the proliferation of missile defenses around the world (India has their own program, China has their own, the Russians are working on super evolved S-400, etc) will render fixed location ICBMs much less useful than in the past.

    Consider the fact that if you want to launch a Minuteman III from F.E. Warren AFB at say, Beijing, there is a fixed trajectory zone that the missile must travel through in order to hit Beijing, due to a number of factors.

    It would not be hard for China for example, to concentrate ABM systems along the probable trajectories from U.S. missile fields to provide a modicum of defenses rather cheaply.

    This is why the SSBNs will survive this round of cuts — they can attack from almost any direction that there is an ocean to fire from, complicating the defender’s job.

  5. RyanCrierie (History)

    >>”ICBMs are a rather inexpensive part of the Triad, compared to SSBNs.”

    The average age of the Minuteman III inventory as of FY09 was 35.7 years. There’s a lot of very expensive programs that have to be done to maintain the MM3 force readiness, like total motor replacement, etc.

    On the other hand we were actually buying new-build UGM-133A Trident IIs as recently as FY04.

    >>”In your third paragraph your last half of the sentence makes very little sense…mobile ICBMs will be size-constrained and therefore range-constrained and would therefore not likely have the flexibility you desire.”

    MGM-134A Midgetman, had it been deployed would have had a single Mk21 RV with a range of 6,800 miles. That’s more than enough for a Midgetman firing unit near Omaha, Nebraska to hit just about every point in Russia, or a Midgetman in the middle of Oregon to hit Beijing.

    When you consider the air mobility of the Midgetman system, it gains capabilities previously associated with the bomber force — like being able to be deployed around the world in times of crisis as a “show of force” — like deploying Midgetman to Hawaii, Alaska, or Guam.

    It’s only drawback is the number of warheads it carries versus a heavy ICBM, which is no longer a drawback now that we have downloaded our land based heavy ICBMs to single warheads…

  6. kevin (History)

    Thanks for pointing me to the Mosher piece. Straight from Krepon’s Shoebox, the book can be had for $0.01 plus $3.99 shipping on Amazon.

  7. Mark Lincoln (History)

    The last real number for the US budget and deficit are for 2010. They showed the entire discretionary budget of the USA as about $1.378 trillion while the deficit was $1.29 trillion. Given that tax cuts have been ruled out then the only way to balance the budget by making cuts will require the elimination of virtually all of the US government including most of the military.

    The Army’s solider, the Air Force ultra-light and the Navy’s row boat may all be based at the Defense Base to be located in. . . some Red State.

  8. anon (History)

    One ought to be careful to distinguish between “eliminating an existing leg of the triad” and “not investing in a future program to replace a leg of the triad.” I would bet the house that Gates was referring more to the second than the first. That being said, I agree that the ICBM leg is the most vulnerable, if only because its replacement is further out on the timeline than either the new SSBN or the new bomber, and we will either be truly broke by the time it gets to the procurement phase, or we will have decided that the world has changed enough to live without land-based ICBMs.

    It is true that, in the near-term, the ICBMs cost relatively little money, as their upgrades and modernization programs are nearly complete and there is little more to do in the next decade to keep them in the holes until 2030. It is also true that Tridents are more cost-effective from the O&M perspective, because they have multiple warheads, but this advantage is declining, both because it is expensive to operate the submarines (and relatively cheaper to let ICBMs sit in silos) and because we are rapidly reducing warheads on Trident submarines, both by downloading and reducing tube numbers. So the O&M cost per warhead for Tridents will rise over the next few years.

    Its also possible that bombers are vulnerable. The Air Force may continue to invest in the new bomber, but may choose to use it only in a conventional role, both because the ALCMs are aging out and because the cost of adding nuclear capability to a bomber is high, and most importantly, because the time and resources spent on maintaining the nuclear capability and certification reduces the amount of time for conventional operations. And conventional operations are primary, particularly if we keep fighting wars.

    So, the future is uncertain, and I don’t think Gates’ comments mean much of anything.

  9. Joe Cirincione (History)

    I think there are quite significant savings to be found in the nuclear weapons budget. I will be publishing more on this soon.

    But just look at the figures. We spend $54 billion a year in nuclear weapons and related programs. We are planning to spend some $15 billion more per year over the next decade to begin development of a new generation of missiles, bombers, subs and bomb factories. That is about $700 billion over the next decade on a nuclear arsenal designed to fight last century’s threat. That’s roughly the amount we’ve spent on the Iraq War over the last decade.

    We cannot afford to borrow this kind of money again.

    • bobbymike (History)

      Yes I would be interested in seeing this analysis as I have seen others dissect such high dollar figures for nuclear weapons as grossly inaccurate. I mean your $54 billion/year figure matches a recent inflation adjusted figure from the 60’s when we were building thousands of warheads, ICBM’s, bombers and SSBN’s.

      I will try and find the analysis but if my memory serves you take, as an example, the fact that an air base “can host” a nuclear bomber and then add that entire base’s operating cost as a “nuclear weapons” cost. Or you take all the tactical aircraft that can carry tactical nukes and add those planes “total annual operating cost” as nuclear weapons cost as if we wouldn’t have the planes at all without nukes, which is a false premise.

      I mean if we really were spending that much per year would not this Administration tout that as enough? Why did the Obama administration agree to increase nuclear weapons spending. If they can’t make an argument that $54 billion/year is enough that’s not very strong leadership, right? Why did the Air Force fail to find $6 million (according to Global Security Newswire) for a next generation ICBM study?

      As I said I look forward to your report.

  10. Kingston (History)

    This is the second time in the last month that Gates has taken aim at the triad. In an April 21 press briefing with Cartwright he stated:

    “All elements of the triad need to be modernized. You may have to make some choices there.

    So I’m just trying — I want to frame this so that it’s not a math exercise but so people understand the strategic and national security consequences of the decisions that they’re making. And it’s up to us to do that, I think, in stark terms.”

  11. John Bragg (History)

    In a situation of declining defense budgets and, let’s say, heavy utilization, removing the bombers from the Triad makes budget sense.

    Premise 1: We’re not actually going to nuke anyone. The only remotely plausible nuking scenarios are retaliatory.
    Premise 2: We bomb things a lot. B-52s, B-2s, also F-15s and F-16s.

    This dynamic has already driven bombers to be devalued in the New START treaty–their warheads essentially don’t count. If there is ever a treaty that reduces warhead stockpiles, the easy candidates are the NGBs and the ALCM warheads.

    • John Schilling (History)

      I don’t see how Premise 1 is relevant to the question of which leg of the triad is “easiest” to eliminate.

      For “retaliatory nuking scenarios”, what matters is having a reliable means of delivering nuclear weapons, and true reliability generally requires some degree of redundance. But, presuming triple redundancy is not called for, I do not see how the retaliatory nature of the hypothesized nukings makes, e.g., ICBMs + SLBMs any better than ICBMs + bombers or SLBMs + bombers. Any two of the three ought to suffice.

      And Premise 2 would seem to argue in favor of keeping the nuclear-armed bombers, on account of we are going to be keeping the bombers regardless and that gives us a degree of cost-sharing that substantially reduces the marginal cost of the bomber leg of the triad. ICBMs, on the other hand, are pure nuclear delivery systems and likely to remain so.

      If the goal is to save money by eliminating one leg of the triad, the ICBMs are the ones to go. Whether real soon, or as their shelf life expires, or never on the grounds that we need triple redundancy after all, is debatable. But I see no rational basis for eliminating the relatively cheap nuclear gravity bombs while keeping the entire ICBM force and its supporting infrastructure.

  12. Distiller (History)

    The assumption that eleminating a leg will lead to savings is – daring.

    Can the U.S. afford a less survivable offensive strategic nuclear deterrence? Cause if you simply cut one leg you loose not only firepower, you loose survivability.

    So let’s say the ICBMs go. That leaves two or three bomber bases and maybe 8 SSBN out at sea. Hmmm. If I’m the bad guy I start thinking about my chances to LO-cruise-missile nuke the bomber bases and get my ISR complex in shape to locate those eight SSBN and LO-cruise-missile nuke those quadrants. Someone saying sneak attacks don’t happen any more? Very lonf “Hmmmmmmm” …

    To counter that option there would be more bombers needed on more bases, with the old SAC scheme of holding a sizeable percentage in the air all the time, with all the secondary costs that means. And then it would mean more SSBN to make it harder to hit them all at once. Cheaper? Not really.

    But what could (maybe should) be done is to go for a strategic dyad, consisting of Midgetman style mobile ICBM (single warhead), and of more but smaller SSBN (with mirv’d SLBM). And leave the bomber component for tactical jobs and for defensive strategic deterrence missions (e.g. airborne boost phase BMD).

    Cheaper? Also not. Smaller, yes. More survivable, yes. Not cheaper. And in any case money should actually not be in a question so closely related to national survival – if you think in these categories and take seriously the whole shebang.

    • bobbymike (History)

      I would move to a Dyad only if we replaced the MMIII force with a new delivery vehicle that, while deployed with one warhead, could be uploaded to five or six warheads to avoid strategic surprise. This would tie nicely with my desire to restart R&D and deployment of a new warhead married to an ultra accurate MaRV allowing pinpoint targeting.

      The point of the above would also be to exercise key industrial base skills in these important technologies.

      I would keep them silo based in updated “super hardened” silos (some say 100,000 psi is now possible) able to launch on warning.

      These same missiles because of their higher throw weight potential could also be coastal based as a conventional global strike missile.

    • John Schilling (History)

      Right, because MIRVed heavy ICBMs in a launch-on-warning posture, that are indistinguishable from conventional global strike missiles which will be launched with essentially zero notice, wouldn’t be the least bit destabilizing or catastrophically accident-prone.

      Launch on warning is a really, really bad idea. The whole point of hardened ICBM silos, is that you don’t *need* to do launch on warning with them. So, please don’t. And if you do insist on doing the launch-on-warning thing, do it the way it is supposed to be done, with manned bombers that can be recalled when you do figure out it was a false alarm.

      Well, at least as long as you don’t use the AN/CRM-114 discriminator unit.

  13. Col Bat Guano (History)

    Two factors will preclude the fielding of a mobile ICBM:

    1) Security

    2) Cost, both RDT&E and fielding, and O&M

    Mobile ICBM (rail or land) = Not Gonna Happen Folks.

    Bombers are highly valued for their signaling ability and recallability and scalability…bombers are dual-role, so their cost is largely charged against conventional war fighting. Not Gonna Get Rid of Bombers in the Triad (small, but required, beer).

    MMIII can easily be kept around till 2030 and beyond. The vernacular is ‘MMIII Forever’ Ultimate LIMFAC is the structural aging of the LF materials…someday.

  14. FSB (History)

    What about Col. Saltzman’s analysis that we needed just 311 nukes? Some saving in just reducing the triad, no?