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The United States Secretary of Defense, Mark Esper, has recently spoken out in support of maintaining the United States’ nuclear triad, the combination of nuclear bomb-carrying aircraft, intercontinental ballistic missiles with nuclear payloads, and nuclear missile submarines. The nuclear triad represents the United States’ nuclear war fighting capability and consists of B-2 bombers, Minuteman III missiles, and Ohio class ballistic missile submarines. However, all three legs of the triad are expected to be replaced over the next 20 years in an incredibly expensive and time consuming process. This leads to the question: Does the United States truly need a nuclear triad? Could a nuclear dyad be enough?
The United States currently maintains about 1,600 nuclear weapons deployed strategically around the world. Popularmechanics.com reports that this includes 400 nuclear warheads and Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles spread across the West, about 900 more warheads spread across 12 Ohio class ballistic missile submarines, and another 600 nuclear warheads to be dropped by U.S. bombers, including the B-52H Stratofortress and B-2 Spirit bombers. The United States also holds about 2,050 tactical nuclear weapons in reserve, as well as another 150 spread across air bases in Europe.
The nuclear triad has been maintained ever since the early 1960s, with each leg of the triad supporting the other at things they may not be good at. Bomber aircraft are good at assessing damage by nuclear strike and can be retargeted mid flight. Submarines can stay hidden for months at a time and can hold enemy targets at risk. ICBMs are accurate and can hit their target in less than 30 minutes.
The Pentagon is now warning that the triad’s vehicles are reaching the end of their service life and must be replaced. The new B-21 Raider bomber program is expected to cost $97 billion. The Minuteman III is expected to be replaced by the $85 billion Ground Based Strategic Deterrent missile program and Ohio class submarines are expected to be replaced by the new Columbia class ballistic submarines at a price of $115 billion.
The new B-21 Raider is expected to replace the aging B-2 Spirit and B-1B Lancer bombers. Even though the B-21 Raider program comes at a price tag of almost 100 billion dollars, it is still worth keeping the program alive, considering the aircraft will be capable of carrying nuclear weapons as well as conventional weapons.
As for the Columbia class of submarines, it is likely the most important leg to keep from the triad, considering its ability to survive an enemy’s nuclear first strike underwater and return fire with its own nuclear arsenal. Submarines help support MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) which in all realism, is probably the main reason no nuclear bombs have been launched operationally since World War II.
The only leg of the nuclear triad really worth reconsidering is the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent, since submarines and aircraft launched nuclear warheads have increased in accuracy and reliability over the past few decades. Furthermore, ground based nuclear weapons incentivize enemy forces to target the missile launch facilities, scattered around the western coast of the United States.
It would probably be best to maintain the triad in a tactical sense, however when it comes to military vehicles, weapons, and equipment the price tag is a major factor, especially when the prices considered are hundreds of billions of dollars.