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Add two more legs to our nuclear triad, or we’ll lose the next war

Dave Fliesen/U.S. Navy via Getty Images

The strategic Nuclear Triad of bombers, land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and ballistic missile submarines for decades has deterred World War III, and remains indispensable.

But today, Triad survivability is doubtful. The Triad should become a strategic “pentagon,” including active and passive defenses to ensure Triad and societal survivability, about which more later.  

{mosads}Each Triad leg has unique characteristics contributing to deterrence. For example:

  • Bombers, unlike launched missiles, can be recalled and their nuclear mission canceled.
  • ICBMs, the most responsive leg of the Triad, can be re-targeted most quickly, launched most quickly and arrive on target fastest.
  • Submarines are the most survivable leg of the Triad, ensuring a U.S. retaliatory capability, even if bombers and ICBMs are destroyed.

Collectively, the three legs make a deterrent even greater than the sum of their parts, because of the complexity of coordinating a successful attack on all three simultaneously, and enabling U.S. responses to a broad range of scenarios.

But here’s why Triad survivability is ever more questionable:

{mossecondads}The number of U.S. strategic bomber bases has been reduced from 45 during the Cold War to just three, and bombers no longer are maintained on alert, making them sitting ducks even for North Korea.

The number of U.S. ICBMs has been reduced from 1,054 during the Cold War to 450, which Russia, and soon China, could destroy with a single warhead targeted against each missile silo for a kill probability over 90 percent.  

The number of U.S. ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) has been reduced from 35-45 during the Cold War to 14 today, falling to 12 Columbia SSBNs in the future. Since only one-third of SSBNs usually are on patrol, and up to two-thirds often at port, eight of the 12 planned Columbias could be destroyed in port, leaving only four surviving at sea in a surprise attack.

Technological advances increasingly threaten Triad survivability.

The great accuracy of modern ICBMs and hypersonic warheads may enable Russia and China to wipe out U.S. bombers, ICBMs and SSBNs in port in a surprise first strike using very low-yield nuclear weapons that produce no radioactive fallout, or using even conventional explosives or a nonexplosive kinetic kill vehicle.

Improving accuracy and hypersonic warheads makes possible a surprise surgical first strike against U.S. nuclear forces that greatly reduces or virtually eliminates mass destruction of civilians. The technological possibility of a “clean” nuclear war that destroys the U.S. nuclear deterrent, as the allure of technological surprise has throughout military history, alone may become sufficient inducement for aggression.

Technological advances in command, control, communications and intelligence (C3I) simplify the problem of attacking all Triad legs simultaneously.

Super-electromagnetic pulse (EMP) weapons can generate 100,000 volts/meter, whereas U.S. nuclear forces and their C3I are hardened only to, at most, 50,000 volts/meter. Most U.S. military forces are not EMP-hardened at all.

Super-EMP weapons now wielded by Russia, China, and probably North Korea, could paralyze the Triad — including SSBNs at sea by severing communications necessary to unlock and launch missiles — and win a nuclear war with a single blow.

Russia has another weapon to neutralize SSBNs at sea.

Russia’s Poseidon unmanned nuclear-powered drone, armed with a high-yield warhead (100 megatons according to several Russian sources, two megatons according to one Russian source, possibly adjustable to either yield), is probably intended to tail and destroy SSBNs at sea, when the time is right. Underwater shock from a 100-megaton Poseidon could destroy submarines and ships to a radius of over 100 kilometers.

Russia plans to deploy 32 Poseidons. Even if all 20 U.S., British and French SSBNs are mobilized and sent to sea, Russia would have enough Poseidons for a two-on-one attack against all 12 Columbia SSBNs and one-on-one attack against all eight British and French SSBNs (their entire nuclear deterrent).

What is to be done?

  • U.S. bombers could be dispersed to more bases and returned to strip alert to increase their survivability.
  • ICBMs could be uploaded with more warheads (Minuteman III used to carry three warheads, but has been downloaded to one) to increase deterrent value.
  • SSBN patrols could be increased so more are usually at sea, and uploaded with more warheads to increase deterrent value.

However, these solutions probably would take many years to implement. They would entail breaking or withdrawing from the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START, which Russia is probably violating anyway, and which does not limit China) and would be fiercely opposed by the Democratic-controlled House.

Moreover, reposturing the Triad would not solve the fundamental problem — that the march of military technology is trending against Triad survivability, favoring aggressors.

We must reverse this technological trend by adding two more legs to the Triad — active and passive defenses — turning the Triad into a strategic Pentagon.

Space-based defenses could render nuclear missiles obsolete, turning the technological tide against aggression.

EMP and cyber protection of military and civilian critical infrastructures would help turn the technological tide toward favoring defense, by countering these most promising offensive weapons.   

President Trump’s U.S. Space Force and recent Executive Order on Coordinating National Resilience to Electromagnetic Pulses could become vehicles to turn the technological tide toward peace, if we are wise and willing.

Dr. Peter Vincent Pry was chief of staff of the Congressional EMP Commission. He served on the staff of the House Armed Services Committee and at the CIA. He is the author of “EMP Manhattan Project: Organizing For Survival Against An Electromagnetic Pulse Catastrophe.”

Tags Ballistic missile submarine Donald Trump Intercontinental ballistic missile Nuclear strategies Nuclear triad

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