The strategic nuclear triad has provided the ultimate guarantor of U.S. security and that of American allies for more than 50 years. U.S. policy, as articulated in the Obama administration’s 2010 nuclear posture review, is to maintain the triad. The U.S. government must soon make decisions regarding the triad’s future and must do so when the defense budget is — and for the foreseeable future will remain — under huge downward pressures. As the size of Russian strategic force is a main driver of the size of the U.S. force, arms control could provide a means to help address this problem.

First, consider the triad and the budget problem facing the Department of Defense.

The U.S. strategic triad — land-based heavy bombers, intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) — dates back to the early 1960s, when the United States built a massive strategic nuclear deterrent as part of the Cold War standoff with the Soviet Union. Each of the triad’s three legs offered particular advantages, making the combined force more robust than the sum of its parts:

  • SLBMs on ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) at sea are virtually invulnerable. There is no public record of a foreign power ever successfully having tracked a U.S. SSBN on a deterrent patrol. SLBMs could retaliate even after a devastating attack on the United States.
  • ICBMs are relatively cheap to operate and, if need be, can be launched quickly.
  • Bombers take many hours, rather than 15-30 minutes, to reach their targets. That gives time for them to be recalled, and in a crisis they can be alerted or deployed in ways that signal U.S. intent. For example, the over-flight of South Korea by two B-2 bombers last March sent, as it was meant to, a very clear, public message to North Korea’s leadership.

The current U.S. strategic nuclear triad consists of Trident II SLBMs on 14 Ohio-class SSBNs, each of which can carry up to 24 missiles; 450 Minuteman III ICBMs based in underground silos at three bases in the central United States; and some 60 B-2 and B-52 heavy bombers.

The 2010 New START Treaty requires that, by February 2018, the United States and Russia each reduce to no more than 700 deployed strategic missiles and bombers with no more than 1550 deployed strategic warheads. The current Defense Department plan is to deploy 240 Trident II SLBMs, 400-420 Minuteman III ICBMs and 40-60 heavy bombers to fit under the 700 limit.

For the life of New START, which runs until 2021 and can be extended to as far as 2026, the U.S. military will be able to maintain 700 deployed missiles and bombers, and 1550 deployed strategic warheads, with its current force structure. That is not the case for Russia, which is already well below the 700 and 1550 treaty limits and is building new SSBNs, ICBMs and SLBMs to replace a strategic force that is largely out of date.

The Pentagon, however, is making decisions now about how to replace elements of the U.S. triad as they begin to age out in the late 2020s:

  • Although the Trident II SLBM will be good until the 2040s, the first Ohio-class SSBN is scheduled to retire in 2027. The Navy wants to begin construction around 2020-2021 of the first of a new class of 12 SSBNs to replace the Ohio boats.
  • B-2 and B-52 bombers will likely remain in service until 2040, but the Air Force desires a new penetrating heavy bomber. While the Air Force wants the aircraft primarily for conventional missions, it could later be given a nuclear role.
  • The Minuteman III ICBMs are serviceable until 2030, and the Air Force is studying how to maintain a land-based ballistic missile leg of the triad after then. One option, perhaps the cheapest, would be to extend the life of the existing missiles.

In addition to the above, the Department of Energy is conducting life extension programs to ensure that the warheads in the nuclear arsenal remain safe and reliable.

The cost of these programs will pose a challenge for the Department of Defense and Department of Energy budgets. DOD faces a particularly acute problem: cuts already adopted by the Obama administration plus the impact of sequestration will trim this decade’s defense spending by one trillion dollars. The Congressional Budget Office projects that, with sequestration, the 2014 defense budget will be $497 billion, rising to $589 billion in 2021. These are hefty sums, to be sure, but DOD nonetheless will face tough decisions about which programs to fund and which to cut.

In the current tight dollar environment, budget-cutters will inevitably look at costly new strategic nuclear weapons systems. They remain the ultimate guarantor of U.S. security. But when civilian DOD leaders and the Joint Chiefs of Staff consider day-to-day military operations and requirements, they focus on conventional missions and the conventional forces to carry out those missions.

Thus, the new bomber has appeal mostly for its conventional role. The Air Force would like to have 80-100 and says the production cost will be $550 million per bomber.

As for the new SSBNs, they are estimated to cost $6-7 billion each — and that is just the cost of the boat, not the missiles or torpedoes that will arm it. The Navy hopes to cut that price to under $5 billion, but these are extremely complex pieces of machinery that must operate in very demanding environments. The recent history of naval shipbuilding suggests cost increases are far more likely than savings. The total cost of building and operating 12 SSBNs over their 40-year life is now estimated at $320-340 billion.

Since the Navy funds SSBN construction out of its overall shipbuilding budget, building new SSBNs will mean less money for new destroyers, attack submarines and other ships. The Navy thus seeks to fund SSBNs out of a special separate defense budget account, but neither the other services nor DOD’s leadership are buying that.

So the United States faces a future in which maintaining a robust triad — which remains national policy — could prove challenging in an era of tight defense dollars. Tomorrow’s blog post will explore how arms control might help address this challenge.

Editor’s note: Please find Steven Pifer’s related follow-up post