Believe it or not, we’re currently amid a triad of nuclear triads. How President Joe Biden juggles them will make clear if the atomic status quo continues on autopilot, as it has for 70 years, or if he’s willing to put his hand on the tiller and lighten the nuclear shadow that most of us have lived under our entire lives.
The U.S. nuclear triad is a Cold War construct, consisting of three “legs”—bombers, submarines, and land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM). It is capable of delivering nuclear weapons pretty much anywhere in the world at any time. Now there’s a second triad consisting of the world’s big-league nuclear players. Originally limited to the U.S. and the Soviet Union (now Russia), the Trump administration pushed hard to incorporate China into the superpower arms control club. But with only an estimated 320 warheads, compared to the 5,800 held by the U.S. and 6,375 held by Russia, China wasn’t interested. Nonetheless, China’s push for a more capable nuclear force makes it a major nuclear player.
Finally, there’s Biden’s nuclear triad, which consists of three major upcoming choices that could act as a brake on nuclear business-as-usual—or speed up the arms race among Washington, Moscow, and Beijing.
“The Pentagon plans on spending $140 billion for a new crop of ICBMs, another $100 billion for B-21 bombers, and $128 billion for new submarines.”
Unfortunately, the Pentagon’s triad seems frozen in place. Its backers assert that each leg is vital to deterrence. Scrapping any leg reduces deterrence, they say, and therefore makes nuclear war more likely. No. What makes the horror of nuclear war more likely are arsenals of nuclear weapons crammed into missiles and bombs, linked by good, but not perfect, command-and-control systems, operated by humans as fallible as you or me.
Unfortunately, the nation has treated its nuclear force the same way it has treated its infrastructure: Both are falling apart. So, after decades of kicking the warheads down the road, the Pentagon wants to rebuild all three legs of the nuclear triad simultaneously. It plans on spending up to $140 billion for a new crop of ICBMs, nearly $100 billion for B-21 bombers, and $128 billion for new submarines. The cost of buying and operating these weapons: Nearly $1.7 trillion through 2046, according to the independent Arms Control Association.
Biden could take a step back from the abyss by scrapping one leg of the nuclear triad. There is consensus that the land-based ICBMs are the weakest leg of the triad, and one that can safely be lopped off. (Even former Defense Secretary William Perry says so.) But ICBM boosters, sensitive to that domestic threat, have launched a campaign to make sure that the 400 Minuteman III ICBMs now sprinkled across Montana, North Dakota, and Wyoming are replaced with 400 Ground Based Strategic Deterrent missiles. Northrop Grumman landed a $13.3 billion contract in September to begin developing the new ICBM. They are supposed to start replacing the 1970s-era LGM-30G Minuteman III ICBMs in 2029. That award has raised eyebrows among the too-many-eggs-in-one-basket crowd, seeing as Northrop is also building the new bomber leg of the triad and the solid-rocket motors that power the Navy’s nuclear-tipped missiles.
The new ICBM’s biggest supporters are those who build it and their Capitol Hill chorus. In fact, Northrop has assembled a nifty list of its backers, including the Senate ICBM Coalition. “You’re going to get a lot of pressure … to delay the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent and maybe even shrink it,” Senator Kevin Cramer, a North Dakota Republican, told now-Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin at his January 19 confirmation hearing. “Do you think we can extend the life of the Minutemen III even if that means unilaterally decreasing our nuclear deterrent?”
Austin was non-committal. “I really need to sit down,” he responded, “and take a look at where we are in that modernization effort.”
U.S. ICBM silos are sitting ducks for enemy attack. But that’s their purpose: They serve as a “nuclear sponge” designed to force the enemy (Russia or China) to destroy them in the opening volley of a nuclear war. That would prevent their use against the attacking state (China or Russia). It also would force the attacking state (Russia or China) to waste precious warheads across the vast expanse of the American High Plains instead of raining them down on more critical military targets or on heavily populated cities. The ICBMs are also on high alert, ratcheting up the pressure to “use or lose them” if an alert of incoming enemy missiles, false or otherwise, is detected.
“There is a consensus that the land-based ICBMs are the weakest leg of the triad, and one that can safely be lopped off.”
This is the strange calculus of nuclear deterrence, which is rooted in a bizarre war game no one hopes ever plays out. Yes, it is as stupid as it sounds. And the U.S. public agrees. A recent poll by the Federation of American Scientists showed that most of those surveyed support alternatives to replacing the ICBMs: 30% supported upgrading the current ICBMs, 20% wanted to do away with the ICBMs entirely, and 10% called for the elimination of all nuclear weapons. Barely one in four, 26%, backed replacing the existing ICBMs with new missiles. Unfortunately, those who want to scale back the U.S. nuclear arsenal don’t seem to care as much about the issue as those who have vested interests in it and are dedicated to seeing it continue.
The military-industrial-congressional-think-tank complex asserts that any decision not to replace the Minutemen would hurt U.S. nuclear deterrence (that’s why “Deterrent” is in its name, although that’s sure to be replaced with a friendlier official nickname before long). Like the boy who cried wolf, triad backers have been saying for decades that an enemy might be able to hunt down and destroy the U.S. Navy’s “boomers,” those mammoth subs that silently carry their nuclear weapons beneath the waves. Yet the subs remain hidden, and there is no threat to them on the horizon. And the bombers remain flexible. Unlike the ICBMs, they can be dispatched worldwide amid global tensions—and recalled after launch.
That’s why there’s a growing realization that the triad is a relic that can safely be trimmed to a sub-and-bomber dyad. If that’s deemed too radical, the existing Minuteman force can be upgraded. That’s what has been done in the past and is currently being done now at one of the three bases where the ICBMs stand alert. But the Pentagon is not interested. “You cannot extend the life of the Minuteman III,” Admiral Charles Richard, the Pentagon’s top nuclear warfighter, flatly said January 5.
All the more reason, then, to amputate this leg.
Although the fate of the ICBMs is center stage, there are two smaller recent nuclear decisions that Biden could reverse. In 2019, the Navy deployed a new low-yield nuclear warhead aboard its sub fleet (the USS Tennessee was the first submarine to carry it, according to the Federation of American Scientists). This new W76-2 warhead has an explosive yield of about five kilotons, a third of the power that destroyed Hiroshima, and is deployed atop Trident missiles, whose other warhead options are 90 or 455 kilotons. “This supplemental capability strengthens deterrence and provides the United States a prompt, more survivable low-yield strategic weapon,” a top Pentagon civilian said a year ago.
That language suggests the U.S. seeks a nuanced nuclear war-fighting capability, where adversaries can lob warheads of various sizes at one another. Backers maintain it deters war by showing the Russians they can’t “escalate to de-escalate”—use small nuclear weapons to end a war on terms favorable to them, confident that the U.S. wouldn’t respond with big nuclear warheads. “Fielding the W76-2 is designed to close a capability gap that threatened to give Vladimir Putin an opportunity to back the United States into a corner where capitulation or full-scale nuclear war would be a president’s only options,” a nuclear expert argued last March.
Finally, the Air Force is developing a Long Range Stand Off (LRSO) nuclear missile in an effort to keep its B-52 bombers in the nuclear fight (they are far too big, slow, and un-stealthy to actually drop bombs on enemy targets without being shot down). This long range missile, slated to start replacing the AGM-86B cruise missile in about a decade, is expected to have a range of more than 1,500 miles. It is supposed to do a better job at reaching targets because of its radar-eluding stealthiness, and to find the targets even if GPS signals are jammed. Like the Navy’s mini-nuke, the long range missile’s W80-4 warhead would be relatively puny. “We need the targeting flexibility and lower-yield options that the LRSO provides,” a Pentagon official has said.
But the U.S. already has plenty of pint-sized nuclear weapons, beyond these two new additions to its arsenal. What the new additions really do is highlight the inanity of viewing a prospective nuclear war as a tit-for-tat deterrence exercise, where fakes and feints can be counted on to keep the big guns holstered forever. “We don’t care about a fair fight. We’re going to kick their ass if they take us on,” said Representative Adam Smith (D-WA), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. “So, why we’re obsessing about a proportional response, I don’t know.”
The post-Cold War triad bolsters the notion that nuclear war is deterrable, or—failing that—winnable, so long as the nation continues to pump hundreds of billions of dollars into it. But every day that delusion persists, the chances grow that our long-standing nuclear shadow could explode into a war pitching the world into an even darker atomic eclipse.
Too dramatic? No more so than a handful of terrorists destroying a pair of the country’s tallest skyscrapers. Or one of the world’s richest nation’s having one of the poorest showings in handling a global pandemic. Or U.S. citizens storming the Capitol seeking to overturn an election whose outcome they don’t like.
That’s hardly a reassuring track record. In fact, it should make one wonder how long can the world’s A-bomb luck last. Candidate Biden declared that President Biden “will work to maintain a strong, credible deterrent while reducing our reliance and excessive expenditure on nuclear weapons.”
Your move, Mr. President.