Does the U.S. still need its nuclear triad?

Andrew Hunter is not a name that springs to everyone’s lips, even within the Beltway. A former congressional staffer and think-tanker, he became assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, technology and logistics in 2022. This puts him in charge of more than 550 acquisition programs for the Air Force and a budget of $60 billion. Even that sum, however, is dwarfed by an interview he gave to Reuters recently.

Here’s the background: The United States is one of four global powers that maintains a nuclear “triad” — the ability to launch nuclear weapons from land, from the air and at sea. There are intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) in 450 silos scattered across the Mountain West, 14 Ohio-class nuclear submarines, and nuclear bombs in a range of sizes that can be dropped by long-range and strategic bombers. According to the Department of Defense, the triad “credibly deters adversaries, assures allies and partners, achieves U.S. objectives should deterrence fail and hedges against uncertain threats.”

The land-based leg of the triad currently comprises around 400 Minuteman III ICBMs, which have been available round-the-clock since 1959. The system needs major modernization, and Northrop Grumman was awarded a contract in 2019 for the $63 billion, 20-year Ground Based Strategic Deterrent program.

The reason that Assistant Secretary Hunter’s interview made modest headlines was his admission that the projected cost of the program, now named LGM-35A Sentinel, had risen from $95.8 billion calculation made in September 2020 to $131 billion. Worse, that figure could rise again: the increase was reported to Congress because its size far exceeded the 25 percent threshold that requires official notification under the Nunn-McCurdy Amendment to the 1982 Department of Defense Authorization Act. There will now be an official review by the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

This kind of procurement is always likely to be dauntingly expensive. Sentinel is a hugely complex weapon of mass destruction, and it is due to be in service until 2075. Moreover, it is replacing a system that is more than 60 years old, and encompasses not just the missiles themselves but the silos and all their associated complex infrastructure. The huge cost increases have been ascribed to the pandemic and higher-than-expected inflation, but they are, in a way, beside the point.

What are these missiles for? Rep. Mike Rogers (R-AL), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, described Sentinel as “​​absolutely necessary for the future of our nuclear deterrent,” and declared bullishly “failure is not an option.” Politicians like to make such pronouncements when they want to look tough. But the Pentagon cannot spend hundreds of billions of dollars on international virility symbols.

Undoubtedly, the world is unstable, perhaps more so than at any time in the past two decades. There is an argument that even the Cold War, while it threatened an existentially catastrophic denouement, provided greater day-to-day stability than we now enjoy. Vladimir Putin has used the conflict in Ukraine to raise the nuclear stakes repeatedly, although toward the end of last year the Russian leader seemed to be walking back some of his most inflammatory rhetoric; Kim Jong Un remains unpredictable and has talked about global (potentially nuclear) conflict as a “realistic reality”; and no one seriously doubts that Iran wants to develop nuclear weapons.

This raises two questions. This first is a limited one: Does the U.S. need its nuclear triad? It’s true that America’s foremost competitors, Russia and China, operate a triad, as (since 2016) does India. The United Kingdom and France, however, do not.

France retired its land-based nuclear missile capability in 1996 and maintains a policy of “strict sufficiency,” the smallest arsenal possible. This is deployed from its four Triomphant-class submarines and Rafale strike aircraft. The U.K. discontinued land-based missiles in 1962 and retired air-launched strategic nuclear weapons in 1968; it now relies on the four Vanguard-class submarines to provide continuous at-sea deterrence. Are France and the United Kingdom less safe than America?

The much larger question is this: Against whom will these weapons be used? Admittedly, deterrence theory not only thrives on but requires a large degree of ambiguity and uncertainty. It only works if a country’s opponent is unsure of its intentions. A full-scale exchange of the sort conceptualized by Dr. Strangelove is extremely unlikely. Even if Putin did use a nuclear weapon against Ukraine, would the U.S. level Moscow, St. Petersburg, Novosibirsk and Yekaterinburg in retaliation?

It is not necessary to answer these questions in order to be skeptical that $131 billion of the Pentagon’s budget is most effectively spent on land-based ballistic nuclear missiles. A decision taken by the U.K. in 1962 and France in 1996 is hardly a radical one.

But the proposition is in fact the wrong way round. Inertia should not make the replacement of the Minuteman system the default setting. Rather, the Department of Defense, and the defense establishment more broadly, should be asked what the compelling justification is for Sentinel. Will Americans sleep $131 billion safer in their beds?

Eliot Wilson is a freelance writer on politics and international affairs. He was senior official in the U.K. House of Commons from 2005 to 2016, including serving as a clerk of the Defence Committee and secretary of the U.K. delegation to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly.

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