Recently, Time magazine covered the aging status of the U.S. Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). The article shone a spotlight on the problem of the deteriorating U.S. nuclear deterrent.
The United States is the only nuclear power that does not have a nuclear modernization program. The U.S. approach to the nuclear triad during the Cold War was different than that of today: Replacing weapons was routine, with updates occurring every decade. This is not true today.
The ICBMs, however, are not the only aging leg of the nuclear triad. The Navy has been relying on Ohio-class submarines for about 30 years. Its replacement is scheduled for the 2030s. The B-2 bomber has been in service for more than 14 years and the B-52 bomber for more than 50 years.
When it comes to modernizing nuclear weapons programs, other countries are not being timid. Russia is aggressively working on a new class of nuclear-capable submarines that have already begun sea trials. The threat of a nuclear Iran persists. North Korea has conducted two nuclear weapons tests and is allegedly preparing for a third one. The extent of the Chinese nuclear weapons modernization is unknown.
Calls for abandoning the triad (in favor of a diad or a monad) are misplaced, because the triad continues to provide the best set of options in the case the U.S. is faced with a crisis involving nuclear weapons. Of all the systems in the nuclear triad, ICBMs are the most numerous, most reliable, most cost-effective, and most responsive.
Addressing future security challenges includes understanding the requirement for a formidable military capable of deterring and defeating potential adversaries. The U.S. cannot responsibly abandon its deterrent strategic capability. Rather, it should expand its arsenal to provide for a more credible nuclear deterrent. Failing to modernize U.S. ICBMs, as well as the other two elements of the triad, may well call deterrence into question.
Jordan Harms is currently a member of the Young Leaders Program at The Heritage Foundation. For more information on interning at Heritage, please visit http://www.heritage.org/about/departments/ylp.cfm.