PBS Newshour Takes On The Holy Nuclear Triad

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Although they forgot to credit, PBS Newshour used FAS updated estimates for world nuclear stockpiles. The full list is here.

By Hans M. Kristensen

It has almost become dogma: the United States needs to keep a Triad of strategic nuclear forces. Therefore, expensive modernization of every leg is necessary plus a fourth leg of non-strategic fighter-jets. Oh, and don’t forget nuclear command and control systems such as terminals and satellites.

Without that, deterrence of potential adversaries will fail and they will use nuclear weapons, allies will loose faith and develop their own, and potential adversaries will win a nuclear war. That’s the picture being painted by a vast and influential community of nuclear warfighters, planners, strategists, defense contractors, and former nuclear officials. They’re having a field day now because of Russia’s misbehavior in Eastern Europe and China’s military modernization.

In reality the situation is less clear-cut: the choice is not between modernization or no modernization, nuclear weapons or no nuclear weapons, but how much and of what kind is necessary for which scenarios. When have strategists and warfighters not been able to come up with yet another worst-case scenario to justify status quo or even better nuclear weapons?

The reality is that if we don’t think carefully about missions and priorities and overspend on nuclear weapons, maintenance and modernization of conventional forces – the weapons that are actually useable – will suffer. And that’s bad defense planning.

The PBS Newshour program does a good job (in the limited time it had) in taking on the Holy Triad, bringing in people from both sides of the isle. This was the third program in a series about the U.S. nuclear arsenal and mission. The others two episodes were: How many ballistic missile submarines does the U.S. really need? from July 2015, and America’s nuclear bomb gets a makeover from November 2015.

Watch them, learn, and think…

The research for this publication was made possible by a grant from the New Land Foundation, and Ploughshares Fund. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the authors.

8 thoughts on “PBS Newshour Takes On The Holy Nuclear Triad

  1. Hans Kristensen:

    Do we have a later update on the DOE’s IW-1-2-3 project? Where do we stand in the FY2017 budget cycle on this program to create a common family of US nuclear warheads intended for use on all American ballistic missiles; ICBMs and SLBMs? Has any opinion on this changed inside the Pentagon? White House?

    Frank Shuler

  2. I have been proposing a reduced triad as follows:
    1. Build only 300 GBSD silo based icbms with 100 missiles at each base. Destroy 50 silos at each base and make the remaining missiles as far apart as possible. Keep 300 W87-1 at 475kt each.
    2. Build only 8 Ohio replacement submarines with 6 deployed. Keep both bases. Each sub has 16 slbms. Each slbm is loaded with 8 warheads. Keep 400 W88 and 700 W76-1.
    3. Build only 50 LRSB heavy bombers and retire the B-2As. Then convert all B-52Hs to conventional only. Each LRSB would have only one bomb bay with an 8 cruise missile rotary launcher. Keep 400 LRSO/W80-4 alcms.
    4. 100 F-35As forward deployed across the globe with 200 B61-12s.

    1. Jon Davis:

      Are your conclusions based just on economics or a desire to unilaterally reduce the “over-bloated” US nuclear arsenal? I ask the question because it reflects on my own thoughts. Do you share my opinion that a world with less nuclear weapons is better than a world with more?

      What is the minimum nuclear deterrent the United States can invest in that provides for the security of the US at the best affordable cost? That question leads us to a quandary. What is the right mix. Your numbers are as good as any.

      However, I would respectfully amend some of your conclusions.

      Three hundred Minuteman III ICBMs, and its future successor, is the right number. Keep all three bases; at F.E. Warren Air Force Base, Wyoming (90th Missile Wing), Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota (91st Missile Wing), and Malmstrom Air Force Base, Montana (341st Missile Wing). I would however keep all currently existing 450 silos in case “decoy missiles” might be needed to confuse the tasking of a nuclear first strike against the US in the future that might not include any START limitations. Also, grouping the armed silos might be a better solution than a “spread”; conclusions reached going back the “dense pack” strategy proposed for the successor to Peacekeeper (MX). Just an observation.

      I sincerely believe that eight Ohio-class submarines, and its successor, is doable but with caveats. I honest don’t think you’re going to get six deployed submarines on station with only a total inventory of 8 boats and 16 crews deploying from 2 bases. If you base 5 submarines at Bangor in Washington State and 3 boats at King’s Bay, Georgia, the best you may be able to continually have on station is four. Given that, I think 8 is the right number.

      Nuclear armed F-35s are more of a “political necessity” than a military weapon. Disagree on the number of B-21 bombers. It is the only part of the “triad” that actually will be used in combat. Build more; many more.

      1000 W76-1
      400 W88-1
      400 W87-1
      375 W80-4
      325 B61-12

      TOTAL: 2500 (down from 4670 today, a 2170 drop)

      1. My numbers are first in consideration of making financial cuts. So I calculated roughly what a one third cut across each leg of the triad would produce. The dense pack of icbms was decided to be a bad solution. Spreading icbms out is better option. We can deploy 6 subs with 8 subs total, especially because the Ohio replacement submarines will not need a midlife overhaul. The ships in port will be mostly for crew changes and maintenance. Furthermore, I think submarines should be taken off alert and only used a devastating retaliatory strike that would happen in days rather than minutes or hours. The subs new mission would be to patrol and hide and only move into firing position in the event we received a massive first strike. So subs out at sea are only what matters, not what subs are in a patrol position to fire. Furthermore, subs are not good for individual strikes. Only icbms would remain on high alert and they do offer the ability to take out only one target at a time or more limited strikes. 50 LRSB is more than double the B-2As we have today. We don’t need more than 50. 50 can deploy 400 LRSO/W80-4 if configured for an 8 missile internal rotary launcher. Why 400? It is specifically for taking out mobile icbms. Mobile icbm numbers are on the rise for Russia, China, North Korea, Iran. Icbms and slbms and even bombers with gravity bombs cannot take out a large number of mobile icbms on the move. The B-52H would be made conventional only. We can keep the B-1R and B-52H indefinitely as conventional bombers with the two working together as air superiority fighter and bomb truck. This configuration would allow deep penetration into an enemy’s territory especially if LRSBs, F-22s, and F-35s take out the perimeter. The F-35As with forward deployed B61-12s prevent any major military invasions and yes, they are a political tool. 2,000 warheads is the number I set for the arsenal because this is what is roughly deployed today. If it fits today’s nuclear targeting requirements then this is a number that is good for a total arsenal. If you calculate the number of actual nuclear targets, 2,000 is still overkill. And by upgrading our nuclear infrastructure it is easier to maintain a smaller arsenal. I would get rid of the 3 + 2 warhead plan, the 1 or 2 spare requirement per deployed warhead, and the requirement for two warhead types per missile.

        1. Jon Davis:

          Good exchange of views.

          I must confess, any nuclear solution based on “saving money” is somewhat lost on me. The historical industrial-military-complex is based on a certain cost structure. For example, building 8 new Ohio replacement submarines will cost the same as 12; except for some steel, a few shipyard hours, and operating cost down the road. The unit cost just rises to cover the “true cost”.

          I’ll concede your conclusions regarding the concept of “dense pack” vs. the “spread offense” without argument.

          Continue to disagree on the 6/8 boat conclusion. There is a “diminishing margin of return”. We now have 18 Ohio-class submarines with 36 individual crews. That’s quite a pool of trained sailors with a very mature supply chain to support the fleet. The dockyard support personnel work an amazing tempo to keep a 66% deployment ratio. Absolute outstanding team that keeps the Trident submarines on patrol. Eight submarines will not be able to achieve the same “tempo”. Just a given.

          By the way, my eight replacement submarines, the SSBNX project, is subject to the fact the new boats will not require a Refueling and Complex Overhaul (RCOH) over its deployment life “by design”. If such a RCOH was found needed over the life-cycle of SSBNX, ten submarines and twenty crews would be needed to always maintain eight “deployable” submarines. Just my opinion.

          I agree the role of strategic ballistic nuclear submarines is to maintain the “counter strike”. That is their mission today and in the future. In that sense, any deployed boat is on deterrence patrol and always “on alert”.

          The F-35 is a very short bird, requiring vast tanker support over moderate distance. Just as an example, the support infrastructure required for the recent deployment of an Italian F-35 from Cameri Air Base in Italy to Patuxent River was impressive. Both the F-22 and the F-35 are theater weapons at very best.

          The last B-53H was delivered to the USAF in 1962. The LRSB will replace far more than just the nuclear mission. We will need more. Agree on the value of the LRSO and the W80-4 to “hunt” mobile TEL ballistic missile systems. However, I do think of this as “deterrence” rather than trying to “win” a nuclear war. No one wins a nuclear war.

          Completely agree that 2000 nuclear weapons is overkill. Yet, got to have a certain redundancy.

          Slightly disagree on the concept that “upgrading” our nuclear infrastructure will make it “easier” to maintain a smaller arsenal. There is that ugly “law of diminishing marginal returns” again. We’d need the same nuclear infrastructure to maintain a 2500 warhead arsenal or just 2000 or 500.

          Agree, the 3+2 plans doesn’t make sense to me.

          Frank Shuler

    2. Nearly every discussion of what to do with the aging nuke triad neglects to include the advance satellites and high technology for the function of command, control, and communication systems. The ability to hear, speak and see without which the systems and forces would be deaf, dumb and blind. The entire electronic Maginot line in the sky is defenseless. By the way there was a 4th leg to the nuke forces rarely discussed that was a carrier task force armed with tactical nukes. I think they are no longer deployed.

  3. Frank,

    Building fewer boats will result in lower costs regardless. 12 boats will never equal 8. The ssbnx will not have a mid-life refueling and will be built to require less maintenance. It will be easy to maintain 6 subs deployed from 8 total. The whole issue is warhead loading. By arming each slbm with 8 warheads we deploy the same as we have now. Now we have 12 subs with 4 warheads each. We would then have 6 subs with 8 warheads each. We would have the same deterrent as we have today. We don’t need extra boats with fewer warheads. The subs will never be used for discrete strikes, only massive retaliation. And no, you missed my point on submarine deployment. I would not have any subs on alert. I would not have a requirement for any sub to launch missiles within minutes or hours. Subs would roam and hide. Subs would retaliate in days. The only thing that needs to remain on alert are icbms because we can hit individual targets with them. We could use 1 missile or even a few if one of our cities was destroyed. We can still launch on alert if under a massive first strike. The F-35A with the B61-12 would be purely a tactical weapon to prevent a major land invasion. I’m not saying it would penetrate deep within Russia for instance. The B-52H and B-1B can be kept flying indefinitely. Airplanes can be rebuilt bolt by bolt as they are now. The B-52H and B-1B will still be effective platforms well into the 21st Century. We don’t have to replace all of our bombers with the LRSB. And as far as the nuclear infrastructure goes, decades back, we had the capability to rapidly produce thousands of nuclear warheads. I believe we should have this capability again so that we can maintain a small arsenal. And the smaller the arsenal, the easier to maintain. And we won’t need to have so many spares. Each delivery vehicle and warhead deployed would provide redundancy and the “spare” issue. It is important to take our numbers lower. But I believe it is important to establish the target list and have each target assigned with 1 warhead. Our weapons have the accuracy to do this today. Destroying a country does not take the thousands of megaton warheads deployed as we had done in our past. The nuclear triad is necessary to keep intact with as much flexibility as possible. This is why I don’t propose getting rid of delivery vehicles or warheads as most disarmament people are desperately trying to push. Overall, we have to make cuts. We have to stop out of control spending. And the nuclear triad is not the untouchable holy grail.

    1. Jon Davis:

      I think the argument is the nuclear triad; strategic nuclear submarines, land-based ICBMs, and nuclear armed bombers are less the holy grail than the “holy trinity”. Each have their advantages and disadvantages. Yet, there is a strong synergy when taken together. Bombers provide the human control factor missing on any ballistic missile and their mere presence may provide restraint in a nuclear crisis. Bombers are the ultimate weapon if called on to execute a limited nuclear retaliation. The silo-based ICBM is the only member of the triad that can’t be destroyed by conventional munitions. Its role is to provide a target; a target requiring a massive nuclear strike to destroy. Yet, ICBMs and SLBMs work in tandem to create deterrence. Attack the American ICBMs and you will face a devastating counter-strike from the strategic submarine fleet. Hopefully, that would deter a rational country. It has up to now.

      There is the argument to do away with ICBMs, the so called, “Perry Initiative”. Or, build a new bomber without nuclear weapons. I call this the
      “Jeremy Corbyn Initiative” named for the British Labor Party leader. He wants to build new Trident strategic submarines for the Royal Navy to create jobs in Great Britain but not arm the submarines at all with nuclear missiles. They would just go to sea empty. Every proposal to drop a “leg” of the triad seems to only bring more risk and uncertainty.

      Can we build a more modern triad with fewer nuclear weapons than in the past? Yes. Less delivery systems? Yes. Lower cost? Somewhat.

      Yet, the “holy trinity” has protected our country since 1961. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

      Frank Shuler

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