As Russia revitalizes its nuclear arsenal and rogue nations North Korea and Iran pursue nuclear capability, America’s nuclear triad is critical to national security.
However, opponents of the triad argue that it is a Cold War relic that has become too expensive and that deterrence can still be achieved by cutting one, two, or even all three legs of the triad. This argument jeopardizes the future security of the U.S., especially amid deep defense cuts that have already taken effect.
The nuclear triad provides a wide array of nuclear deterrent options for the U.S. and its allies. Intercontinental ballistic missiles are the most reliable and the most responsive leg of the triad and the cheapest to operate. Long-range bombers impose cost burdens on adversaries by compelling them to construct robust air defenses, but they are typically used to conduct conventional missions and have been used since the 1990s in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. Submarines are the most survivable leg and can complicate an opponent’s calculus when contemplating an attack on the U.S.
However, budget cuts have delayed development of the next generation ballistic missile submarine, which provides a survivable sea-based strategic deterrent that the Navy’s undersea warfare Chief Rear Admiral Richard P. Breckenridge called “critical to the country.”
The B-2 Spirit long-range bomber fleet and the 50-year-old B-52 Stratofortress fleet have also suffered from defense cuts. Heritage’s Brian Slattery reported that of the 20 B-2s in existence, only 16 are operational at any given time due to maintenance schedules. Additionally, only a handful of B-2s are constantly used for training, so the availability of combat-ready Spirits actually declines further. Meanwhile, the last time the Air Force procured a B-52 was in 1962.
Cutting one or more legs out of the triad would have many unintended consequences for U.S. credibility. It could, for example, adversely affect the nonproliferation regime. Any of the 30 countries that the U.S. guarantees nuclear security to could develop their own nuclear weapons capabilities if they decide that U.S. guarantees are no longer credible. This is unacceptable in today’s increasingly unstable and ambiguous world.
Only a complete nuclear triad is a sufficient deterrent to the threats that face America and in the foreseeable future, yet the U.S. is the only nuclear power in the world without any substantive nuclear weapons modernization program. Hoping America’s adversaries won’t seek nuclear capabilities will not prevent it from happening. Only the vitality of and assurance provided by the nuclear triad can do that.
Clark Irvine is currently a member of the Young Leaders Program at The Heritage Foundation. For more information on interning at Heritage, please click here.