Aaron SteinThe Trillion Dollar Triad?

It’s budget time in the United States! And what’s on the agenda – nuclear weapons.

Today, Aaron and Jeffrey discuss the plans to replace the Triad. Can the United States afford to replace all three legs of the Triad? Should it? And what signal would a mismanaged modernization program send to US allies who count on US nuclear weapons for deterrence?

Tune in and find out what we have to say about these issues.

Jeffrey and Aaron discussed a number of articles during the podcast:

Jon B. Wolfstahl, Jeffrey Lewis, Marc Quint, “The Trillion Dollar Nuclear Triad,” The James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, January 2014.

Jeffrey Lewis, “Into Thin Air,” Foreign Policy, May 23, 2014.

As always, you can subscribe to the (now better sounding) Arms Control Wonk Podcast on iTunes.


  1. j_kies (History)

    Gents – pure dollar discussions missed the point.
    Since 1989 Trident II has 148 successful tests and the best record for safety and reliability in the DOD. This record results from sound design and personnel practices.

    Since 1992 and the dissolution of SAC; USAF budgets promotions and decisions eliminated the PK, SLEPed MMIII past 40 years in the field, de-certed the B-1 essentially shirking the nuclear mission and its safety and surety needs. Both the bomber and missile forces have notable recent failures in the press.

    Its not a Triad now – its a Monad, the question is whether or not the USAF can be motivated to care enough to present viable capabilities when they have budgeted exactly zero for those recapitalization issues in the out years.

  2. Hew Packard (History)

    Over 90% of the 450 Minuteman III ICBMs are on alert today and everyday. Of the 14 Trident submarines, 4 or less submarines are on alert at a time. In the teeth to tail ratio, ICBMs stand the alert while others talk about it.

    The next 12 Ohio Replacement submarines will cost over $100 billion in then year dollars or between $5 billion to $8 billion per submarine after the first one. That is $300 million to $500 million dollars per launch tube as compared to $0.00 per ICBM silo over the next 40 years. ICBMs have and will always be dramatically more cost effective than SLBMs.

    ICBMs provide a much better single shot probability of damage per target than the SLBMs and are key to deterrence.

    One well placed warhead into each SLBM base would destroy approximately one-half of the SLBMs. It takes two or more warheads to destroy a single ICBM silo. In a warhead limited New START environment, it can be argued that ICBMs are just as survivable as SLBMs, more cost effective than SLBMs, and more stabilizing than SLBMs.

    Do we need SLBMs? Yes. Do we need over statement of SLBM capabilities and talk of a Monad? No.

    • j_kies (History)

      Sir – respectfully, we aren’t playing games of nuclear warfighting; your ‘key to deterrence’ argument is falsified by demonstrated Trident v MMIII CEP and yield.

      In the event of attack, a sufficient SLBM force for nation-ending second strike capability is assured. That fact is the key to deterrence per Herman Kahn.

      The silos aren’t the issue; the entire 20th AF and support organizations are the sustainment cost.

      If you wish to have ICBMs e.g. we stop ignoring Deming and real aging issues “SLEPs don’t turn back the clock”, the ICBM force must be recapitalized. We no longer have the industry and facilities from the last developments in the 1980s so any ICBM re-cap has to rebuild the industry, facilities and develop the personnel. Those costs will be hundreds of billions and likely a factor of 3-4 more than the USAF will estimate.

    • John Schilling (History)

      We do have Orbital Sciences Corporation offering the Commercial Taurus for $50-100 million a shot, all new construction. That’s basically an ICBM sans RV and warhead – and judging by their recent launches, the fairing needs a bit of work as well. So, not necessarily hundreds of billions of industry redevelopment.

      If the USAF says, “Only LockMart and BoeDonnel need apply; we don’t trust newbies to make ICBMs”, then yes, hundreds of billions of dollars. If, alternately, we want a truly competitive procurement, then we need another OSC, and that might cost a hundred billion to gear up. And if we want 450 replacement ICBMs in a decade, that would require such a massive increase in OSC’s production rate that it might as well be a new company, again expensive.

      But if we aren’t willing to settle for a monad, there may be paths to recapitalizing a modest ICBM force at a not terribly unreasonable cost. I am, as usual, not optimistic that anyone will start exploring those paths in a timely fashion; waiting until there is a clear capability gap and throwing money at crash programs (so-named for the expected outcome), is more the American way.

  3. nukeman (History)

    It is good to see honest talk about the need for modernizing the US nuclear forces. China and Russia are laughing at the US and the current administration because they know we will not come to the aid of countries that we have alliances with.

    Take a look at the Reassurance aid directed to Europe and honestly answer whom are we trying to reassure and why. If the US was truly supportive of these countries there would be no real reason for this plan. Only weak countries come up with plans like that.

  4. Alicia (History)

    In a discussion on 21st century deterrence, Herman Kahn really takes the biscuit.

    People say that I’m a dreamer, but I believe our deterrence mission could benefit from strategy steering the warheads. For an example of the anti-thesis of this approach, I refer you to the psychedelic range of multi-platform warheads in the DoD/NNSA 3+2 program.

    Unless our intelligence community has been freebasing, the U.S. is ultimately concerned with deterring Russia and China. With increased counterforce targeting ability since the Cold War, the threat is less about “nation-ending” strikes and more about strikes on hardened military installations. Nowadays credible deterrence is achievable with an arsenal below New START numbers (I would also argue decreased operational readiness of ICBMs and phasing out of CASD).

    This podcast evaluates not only program costs, but the performance of LEPs, platforms and most importantly our deterrence needs.

    Not targeting your observations on the survivability of ICBMs versus SLBMs. However we cannot afford to let capabilities alone shape our national security priorities. And even if we can afford the trillion dollar triad, it will sap institutional capacity and overextend a dwindling workforce in keeping potentially feral life-extension programs on a leash.

    *Descends bully pulpit, lowers monocle.*

  5. YankeeCynic (History)

    One thing to keep in mind with these issues is the lag time that would accompany the need to reverse the decision to disband one of these legs. And I’m not just talking having to relearn and redesign/rebuild the weapons and equipment, but rather the loss of knowledge on the part of those entrusted to be stewards of those systems once they came back online. It takes a long time to build up subject matter experts on these systems, build the schools needed to train them, and the force management systems needed to oversee their careers. That takes a long time to build, and the trials and tribulations of the 1950s and 1960s demonstrates this problem well.

    That isn’t a reason to maintain them over other budget concerns. But it is a factor I would argue we have to keep in the back of our minds.

  6. 31415 (History)

    Money is not the key issue. The yearly average is about $30b, which is similar to the budget of National Institutes of Health (NIH). While NIH deals with open-ended questions about our health, the most stringent requirement for the nuke establishment is essentially about maintaining the ability to shoot some 1000 nukes within 15 min, for the foreseeable future. It would be increasingly untenable to find decicated people to do this sort of things when everyone knows that there is nothing to shoot and the other side can shoot back too. And there will be no home to return after that 15 min. There are so many other ways to deter people we do not like. You can paralyze their internet, lock them out of SWIFT, sell them treasury bonds, etc. Competitions from much more pacific ways of strategic deterrence will in the long run ruin the bottomline of the nuke business.

  7. nukeman (History)

    If things were really going well with the deterrence the US provides to our allies then the question needs to be asked why is South Korea planning to build their own long range missile interceptors. Surely they could buy such a system at much less cost from the US. We are now seen throughout much of Europe and Asia as unreliable ally who will not support our friends in times of crisis. Money is a reliable factor is such situations like this and South Korea like other countries will do what is in their best interests and not the USs.

  8. John Bragg (History)

    I think the reality is that budget concerns will triumph over strategic concerns. The Cold War is over, and China and Putin’s Russia just don’t look like threats to justify huge nuclear recapitalization campaigns.

    That said, I’m going to ask the sort of embarrassing question that a clever but ignorant staffer will ask.

    Instead of developing a new-generation ICBM, would it be feasible to buy more Trident II’s and adapt them to silo-basing? Wikipedia gives the unit cost as $30M, which is expensive for an ICBM, but at $30M x 450 = $13.5B, a lot less than the “Minuteman Followon” projected cost of $20-$120B.

    The Trident II is wider than the MM3, but narrower than the MX missiles which fit in the same silos.

    Is there a technical reason that this is a stupid idea?

    • j_kies (History)

      It’s the NIH syndrome, technically yes politically no.

      The next question then becomes ‘couldn’t you just have the empty holes that would allow you to sleeve in Trident and not populate them until the strategic situation changes to motivate you to have a land-based leg? Not maintaining the 20th AF would save some billions per year of personnel costs.

      The Triad wasn’t the intent, US planners researched and developed all three legs with the expectation one would fail to provide a viable system. The plan was redundant deterrent capabilities, not doubly redundant as achieved.

    • George William Herbert (History)

      One issue is range; a lightly loaded Trident II missile only makes about 11,000 km or so; from silos along the Canadian border, there are targets we might want to shoot we can’t reach. MM III goes about 13,000 km.

    • George William Herbert (History)

      For what it’s worth, a side conversation with a generally credible well placed party has challenged the “commonly reported” lightly loaded Trident II missile range of 11,000 to 11,300 km. It may be longer enough to be acceptable for that role after all.

      The conversation also strayed into shooting over Russian territory at other people, which is one of those geopolitical “Gak” moments that are not really well addressed in existing US strategy literature (none of the existing US ICBMs can reach some possible targets going south, for example).

  9. Jon (History)

    1. Develop a new silo based icbm with marv capability and range to hit any target in the world. Upgrade Minuteman III silos. Keep W87 only.
    2. Develop a road mobile icbm with one warhead that does not have any elaborate basing schemes and no hardening of the launch vehicle. Simplicity, mobility, speed, “economical” – an oxymoron, I know. Again, use W87 design.
    3. Cancel the ssbn(x) and build more Virginia ssn’s without the payload module.
    4. Develop a new long-range, stealth, nuclear-capable slcm and field on an all attack submarine force (ie. Virginia-class.) Use modified W76-1 warheads.
    5. Cancel the lrs-b and modify a 747 with a long-range, stealth, nuclear-capable alcm. Modify W76-1 warheads.
    6. Build 500 B61-12s and deploy exclusively on F-35.
    7. Allow existing delivery vehicles to retire (Minuteman III, Ohio subs and Trident II, B-2, B-52H.)
    8. Retire W78, W80, W88, B83.
    9. Withdraw from New START.

  10. Jon (History)

    There are other options in fielding a more affordable nuclear “triad” when current delivery vehicles are retired:
    1. Deploy a Minuteman IV in upgraded existing Minuteman III silos, deploying only single W87 warheads.
    2. Cancel the SSBN(X) and deploy stealth SLCMs with W84 warheads on Virginia-class submarines.
    3. Cancel the LRS-B and modify a 747 to deploy a new stealth ALCM with W84 warheads.
    4. Deploy the B61-12 on just the F-35A.
    5. Retire all other warheads.
    6. After New START expires, this could reduce the arsenal to 2,000 warheads.

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