The Future of America's Nuclear Deterrent

Keep the triad alive.

What critics of this program often fail to appreciate, however, is that forgoing the development of a new ballistic-missile submarine would force the United States to rely on less-stealthy alternatives, whether a modified Virginia-class attack submarine or newly-built Ohio-class SSBNs. Moreover, reducing the total number of SSBNs the United States plans to purchase could create pressure to consolidate remaining boats, which are currently divided between two bases. Yet this would also leave them bound to a single ocean. Either scenario would reduce the survivability of the undersea deterrent—its most important attribute.

By contrast, the bomber force (which includes penetrating systems like the B-2 that can release gravity bombs directly over enemy targets as well as standoff systems like the B-52 that can release cruise missiles from beyond the range of enemy air defenses) has arguably been the least important leg of the triad since the deployment of ballistic missiles in the 1960s. Nevertheless, bombers are likely to become far more relevant in the future, particularly if conventional precision-strike systems and nuclear weapons proliferate more widely.

For instance, despite their function as nuclear-delivery systems, stealthy aircraft like the B-2 and the planned long-range strike bomber (LRS-B) will have the increasingly important role of providing conventional military options in highly contested environments. In fact, this will arguably be their primary role. Because the spread of extended-range guided weapons could threaten the United States’ ability to conduct expeditionary military operations by holding forward bases and nonstealthy aircraft at risk, platforms that can operate from range and penetrate defended airspace will become more critical for conventional deterrence, crisis stability, and power-projection.

Both the penetrating and standoff components will also be tasked with providing limited nuclear options if necessary. Because the United States has no plans to build new nuclear warheads, bombers will remain the only strategic delivery systems capable of employing the only low-yield weapons that will remain in the U.S. stockpile. Importantly, these weapons might be the most credible deterrent to a limited nuclear attack by a minor nuclear power. Of course, this will also require the United States to refurbish its aging nuclear gravity bombs and replace its nuclear-armed cruise missiles before they are retired.

Lastly, the importance of ICBMs has undoubtedly declined since the end of the Cold War. Yet significant cuts to this leg of the triad could introduce a source of instability in the future. In particular, the role of ICBMs as a “missile sink” (that is, a force-in-being that maximizes the number of aim points an adversary would have to target in a first strike on U.S. nuclear forces) still has value, because no opponent can seriously degrade the U.S. ICBM force without expending a disproportionate share of its own arsenal. The United States should, therefore, continue to extend the life of its Minuteman III ICBMs, which would enable it to defer embarking on a wholesale replacement program.

In the end, there are credible reasons for the United States to forgo deep reductions in the size of its nuclear arsenal, avoid significant cuts in its nuclear force structure, and move ahead with planned nuclear modernization programs. By shrinking the arsenal and divesting force structure, Washington could find it increasingly difficult to simultaneously preserve strategic stability with a nuclear peer, deter nuclear use by hostile regional powers, and dissuade other nations from building nuclear weapons. Moreover, abandoning modernization efforts would be tantamount to major nuclear cuts given the age of existing warheads and delivery systems, the long timelines associated with developing new capabilities, and the fact that the United States no longer has the infrastructure or personnel in place to quickly begin producing nuclear weapons if necessary—a situation that will only grow worse over time.

Evan Braden Montgomery is a senior fellow atthe Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA). This article draws on his newly released CSBA report, The Future of America’s Strategic Nuclear Deterrent.

Image: Flickr/airwolfhound. CC BY-SA.

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