The Rickover Review is a defense blog series on military technology and procurement named for the innovative Admiral Hyman G. Rickover. His dedicated pursuit of nuclear power in submarines led to the USS Nautilus. His innovations gave the United States a critical advantage in the Cold War and redefined the role of Submarines in naval combat. The Rickover Review focuses on new technologies and procurement policies for the 21st Century.
At a GOP Primary debate the question arose of how to update America’s nuclear triad. What is the state of our nuclear forces and what can be done to modernize them?
The Nuclear Deterrent Triad
The triad refers to the three main types of nuclear forces: the strategic bombers of the Air Combat Command (ACC), Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs), and submarine mounted Sea Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBMs). Each plays a key role in maintaining deterrence. The immediate readiness of ICBMs, the stealth and unpredictability of SLBMs, and the variability of ACC bombers and their ability to destroy both hardened targets (counterforce) and soft targets (counter value); each component force contributes a critical element to the deterrence.
Most of these weapons systems date from the Cold War, including some from the 1950’s. China has been developing more modern weapons systems, Russia is upgrading its nuclear weapons force, and North Korea has recently become a nuclear power. Iran, the world’s leading financier of terrorism, likewise aspires to join the nuclear club. More modern weapons systems are needed to ensure a long-term deterrent. The Cold War may be over, but there is still a need to deter potential enemies. Russia’s more belligerent behavior of late certainly serves as a wake up call on the strategic weapons front.
With our triad of nuclear weapons systems growing increasingly out of date and aging quickly, they will prove less and less effective as deterrents moving forward. Might there come a day when a potential enemy might decide that our defenses are sufficiently antiquated and rusty that they could be willing to venture an attack? Just such a nightmare scenario would certainly be more likely with smaller, less rational, nuclear players, of whom proliferation has created an increasing number.
Upgrading the Triad
In the recent debate, Senator Marco Rubio accurately described the problem: “Todays bomber pilots,” he pointed out, “are flying the same B-52s that their grandfathers flew.” Upgrading these systems will be costly, but well worth the investment. A few ground rules must be understood before discussing potential replacement programmes:
- The cost must be kept to a minimum, as the era of “spare no expense” strategic defense has long expired.
- Weapons systems must be made to be as durable as possible and to have the greatest possible longevity.
- We must incorporate the greatest practicable capability in each system again at the lowest conceivable cost.
Before discussing the state of the triad and what might be done to improve it, perhaps a fourth character of the deterrent, the missile shield, deserves some attention. In the late 90s the concept of missile defense was born anew in the National Missile Defense Programme. Anti-Ballistic Missiles (ABMs) and missile interception technology have come a long way in recent years. Israel’s Arrow and Iron Dome systems are excellent examples, along with the US THAAD and SM-1 systems. The US has been working on the concept for some years. The ability to thwart attacks by a potential enemy is also a powerful deterrent to attack. It would seem that a renewed investment in this project is in order.
The recent announcement that North Korea claims to have developed a hydrogen bomb and the late Iran Deal, which all but welcomed Iran into the nuclear community, make missile defense a higher priority. These irrational players cannot be as easily deterred by MAD, which has kept more rational players, including the now collapsed USSR, in check.
To learn more about the Triad, view these three separate articles on each component of strategic deterrence:
The Future of America’s Nuclear Triad
The Cold War has been over for a quarter century but its legacy remains. Russia has become more belligerent and is upgrading its strategic weapons systems; China has been improving its weapons systems; North Korea continues to be an ever present danger to the global community; and Iran may soon pose a similar threat. America’s defenses cannot be left behind. Even though the arms race is in the past, we need to be able to demonstrate to potential enemies that the United States is determined to maintain a state of the art defense in all areas. Effective deterrent cannot be maintained with aging Cold War Era weapons systems. To that end, the triad must be upgraded and improved in the most cost effective way.