Here is the nuclear triad we actually need for deterrence

Our nearly $2 trillion nuclear weapons plan to replace every weapon in our Cold War arsenal is bloated and on autopilot. The debate on nuclear modernization should not be reduced to a binary “for” or “against.” We need to modernize our nuclear arsenal but let’s be thoughtful about it and focus on the triad we actually need. Now is the time to make some hard decisions and prioritize our investments.

President Biden has rightly asserted that the sole purpose of nuclear weapons should be to deter their use against the United States and our allies. We can accomplish this with a smart nuclear weapons force posture that is both affordable and formidable, and shaped to prevent it from actually undermining deterrence or raising the risk of nuclear war.

As Presidents Reagan and Gorbachev well understood, smaller nuclear weapons with short flight times make nuclear war more likely. That is why they prioritized such systems for elimination through arms control agreements. Sadly, our current nuclear weapons plan — which emphasizes so-called low-yield, stealthy, “limited” nuclear war-fighting weapons delivered on ambiguous platforms such as cruise missiles — ignores that wisdom and needlessly risks returning us to the dark, dangerous days of the Cold War.

Russia has been modernizing its nuclear forces and is developing some worrisome exotic new systems. China is also improving its modest nuclear force. In today’s uncertain world, we should sustain each leg of our triad of nuclear weapons — submarine and land-based ballistic missiles, and bombers. This combination of three delivery systems provides the foundation of our national defense, at least until future arms control agreements can be negotiated. While serving for five and a half years as President Obama’s Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical and Biological Defense Programs, we reversed decades of decay in our aging nuclear weapons stockpile and delivery systems, and retired and dismantled needless and destabilizing weapons such as the nuclear sea-launched cruise missile.

There is an opportunity today for a similar vision to focus resources where they best serve the security of America, its allies and global stability. President Biden should ensure a strong triad of nuclear weapons and a stable deterrent for decades to come, to strengthen our security while leading renewed arms control efforts to reduce the global risks from these weapons.

First, he should continue investing in the new Columbia Class strategic missile submarines, its Trident missiles, and the two refurbished warheads they carry.  The submarine leg of our nuclear triad is the strongest and most survivable. Excessive plans for a third submarine missile warhead  and a new tactical sea-launched nuclear cruise missile should be scrapped. They won’t improve our security and the new nuclear cruise missile would weaken our deterrent. We don’t want our potential adversaries to think they could use a small nuclear weapon against us and only risk getting a small one in return. 

Second, he should sustain our very capable Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), along with the one safe and modern warhead they currently can deliver. The second, older, and less safe warhead should be phased out. The exorbitant plan for a brand new ICBM replacement force, called the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent, should be taken off the drawing board. It is wasteful and we don’t need it to maintain an effective ground-leg of our triad over the next few decades.

Third, President Biden should move ahead with the new B-21 Raider stealth bomber and the effective, updated B-61-12 nuclear gravity bomb it will deliver, while eliminating plans to replace our old Air-Launched Cruise Missile with a new Long-Range Strike Option (LRSO).  The LRSO is dangerous, destabilizing, and we can have a more effective air leg of the nuclear triad without it. No president wants to be told two hours after launching such a weapon that there is nothing that can be done to recall it, which would be the case with the LRSO if it is not halted.

Today, in accordance with the recently-extended New Start Treaty with Russia, we have 60 nuclear-capable heavy bombers. Once we have fielded our first 40 new B-21s to complement our 20 B-2 stealth bombers, we should retire the ancient and highly vulnerable B-52, or at least remove it from the nuclear mission. Likewise, we do not need our tactical F-35 Joint Strike Fighter to carry nuclear weapons. In about 10 years, a nuclear bomber leg of the triad made up solely of 60 highly capable B-21 Raiders, coupled with the B-61 nuclear gravity bomb, will provide us with a highly effective bomber leg of the triad. Simply, there is no need for yet three additional types of nuclear bombers and a new nuclear cruise missile, which is the Air Force’s current plan.  

Most significantly, these changes to the triad remove dual-capable weapon systems — those that could be either conventional or nuclear. Such systems raise the potential for confusion and the destabilizing risks of miscalculation and escalation. Our deterrent will be stronger without them.

This sensible, effective and affordable plan for sustaining our triad of nuclear weapons will likely be attacked loudly from both ends of the pro- and anti-nuclear spectrum. Fortunately, President Biden has more nuclear weapons expertise than any American president since George H.W. Bush. Like the elder President Bush, rather than leave nuclear weapons policy and investment decisions to others, including numerous stakeholders who will fight any change to the status quo, Biden has the knowledge and leadership abilities to direct such decisions from the top. After all, these truly are the president’s weapons.   

Andrew C. Weber is a senior fellow at the Council on Strategic Risks. He served from 2009-2014 as President Obama’s Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical and Biological Defense Programs. Follow him on Twitter @AndyWeberNCB.

Tags China Deterrence theory Joe Biden Nuclear arms race Nuclear strategy Nuclear triad Russia

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