I Got Your Nuclear Triad Right Here

The Nuclear Triad is not the Holy Trinity. There is nothing sacred about it. It is an accident of history. And it's time for it to go.

In Tuesday's GOP debate, Donald Trump clearly could not answer moderator Hugh Hewitt's question on what priorities he would have for building new nuclear weapons. He rambled, concluding with the odd, frightening, "For me, nuclear is just the power; the devastation is very important to me."

Marco Rubio, playing the smart kid in the class, then explained the nuclear triad to Trump and "the people at home," but failed to go much beyond the deep conservative insecurity that permeates every foreign policy discussion: We built these weapons, we need these weapons, we must build more weapons.

So, for all you "people at home," here is a short guide to our ability to destroy human civilization and most life on the planet.

What is the Nuclear Triad?

The nuclear triad is not a brilliantly conceived plan for the ultimate defense of the nation. It is an accident born of military service rivalry and contractor proposals.

When we invented nuclear weapons 70 years ago, each military service wanted this "weapon of the future." The Air Force lobbied for nuclear-armed bombers and later long-range missiles. The Navy put them on ships and later submarines. The Army deployed nuclear artillery, rockets, land mines and even a nuclear bazooka called the Davy Crockett.

We went nuclear nuts. The Air Force famously told President Kennedy that they needed 10,000 Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs). Then-Secretary of Defense Bob McNamara talked them down to a 1000. Why 1000? It was a nice, round number.

By the mid-1960s, we had over 30,000 nuclear weapons, and the Soviet Union was racing to catch up, which they did in the 1980s. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (founded by Manhattan Project members who later regretted building the bomb) has a great, interactive graphic of the nuclear arsenals of the world over time.

The Army figured out that nuclear weapons were useless for the conflicts they actually faced, and got rid of them in the 1990s. Likewise, the Navy jettisoned them from the surface fleet. Today, we are left only with those on Navy subs and Air Force planes and missiles.

But this still is an incredible number of nuclear weapons.

We have a nuclear stockpile today of some 7,200 nuclear warheads. Of these, 4,700 are available for military use.

  • 450 warheads sit on silo-based missiles in Montana, Wyoming, Nebraska, Colorado and North Dakota.
  • 1,152 are aboard nuclear submarines prowling the world's oceans.
  • 300 sit in bunkers for use on bombers based in Louisiana and North Dakota.
  • To back up those forces, there are an additional 2620 spare bombs at bases in New Mexico, Nevada, Georgia and Washington.

We also keep 180 "nonstrategic" warheads at NATO bases in Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey.

Finally, an additional 2,500 warheads are awaiting dismantlement in nuclear storage facilities across the country.

Russia has a similar-sized arsenal. Six other nations (the United Kingdom, France, China, Israel, India and Pakistan) have a few hundred weapons each. North Korea has enough material for about ten weapons right now, but that number is increasing. At Ploughshares Fund, we have summarized these arsenals in a handy chart.

Do We Need a Nuclear Triad?

We do NOT need a nuclear triad. The vague talk at the GOP debate is matched by similarly vague discussions about the triad at hearings and in official statements. This posturing inflates the value of these weapons and obscures their threat to our own security.

Secretary of Defense Ash Carter continues to refer to this arsenal as "a bedrock of our security" and "foundational" to U.S. policy. He is protecting nuclear weapons from any budget cuts, even as critical conventional forces are squeezed.

Top military officials justify the ICBM force because it "complicates the enemy's attack plans," by which they mean that the silos serve as a "nuclear sponge" that would soak up hundreds of enemy warheads exploding in Montana, Wyoming, Nebraska, Colorado and North Dakota.

We seem to have lost all touch with the horrifying power of these weapons.

Each bomb that the U.S. and Russia maintains is many times more destructive than the bombs that leveled Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Robert Oppenheimer, father of the atomic bomb, called these new hydrogen bombs "weapons of genocide."

We have not had a military mission that required the use of even one of these weapons in 70 years, and neither has anyone else. The use of "ten H-bombs on ten cities would be a disaster beyond history," said President Kennedy's National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy, "and a hundred bombs on a hundred cities unthinkable." We have 7,000.

The majority of nuclear policy experts, in and out of the military, believe that U.S. national security objective can be met at far lower numbers. We do not need thousands of nuclear weapons to deter an enemy from attacking us. The United Kingdom has deterred its enemies with about 200 weapons. No one has attacked China, who also fields a force of about 200 weapons.

A study by the Joint Chiefs of Staff concluded several years ago that we could fulfill all our military missions with one-third fewer weapons - going down to about 1000 deployed strategic warheads - no matter how many weapons the Russians maintained.

A commission chaired by Gen. James Cartwright, former head of the Strategic Command and former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, advocated reductions to 450 deployed warheads. They argued for keeping 360 on our Trident submarines and 90 on bombers. They would scrap the ICBM force.

So would former Secretary of Defense William Perry. ICBMs "aren't necessary," he says, "They're not needed. Any reasonable definition of deterrence will not require that third leg."

There are similar, sensible proposals from many others, including Benjamin Friedman and Christopher Preble at the CATO Institute; Stephen Pifer and Michael O'Hanlon at the Brookings Institution; Daryl Kimball and his colleagues at the Arms Control Association; and, by Chief of Strategic Plans and Policy Division at Air Force Headquarters, Col. B. Chance Saltzman, and his coauthors, James Forsyth, Jr. and Gary Schaub, Jr.

These last authors ask the simple question "What size force is needed for deterrence?" Their answer: 311. "The United States could address military utility concerns with only 311 nuclear weapons in its nuclear force structure," they conclude, "while maintaining a stable deterrence."

Can We Afford a New Nuclear Triad?

The reason these questions are coming up now is that we are about to completely replace all our nuclear weapons with a new generation of warheads, bombers, missiles and submarines. "We are on the brink of a new nuclear arms race," warns Secretary Perry.

The contracts are working their way through the Pentagon and Congress right now, with little opposition. President Obama has a vision for reducing the role and numbers of nuclear weapons in U.S. national security policy, but he has lost control of the agenda to his own bureaucrats.

There is a policy-procurement gap. Contracts race ahead of policy. Unless the president and his successor act soon, they will lock us into building weapons we do not need at a price we cannot afford. Nuclear weapons are irrelevant to the real threats we face from ISIS, Boko Haram, the Syrian civil war, the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and global terrorism. They suck funds away from the resources we need to confront these challenges.

It is millennials, who may not even be aware of this debate, who will be stuck with the bill.

We are on track to spend over $1 trillion on new nuclear weapons over the next three decades. The Pentagon's Undersecretary of Acquisitions Frank Kendall says the new weapons plans are "unaffordable." The Pentagon's Comptroller Michael McCord told reporters last month "There's not a good answer" for how we can afford all these new nuclear weapons, "I don't know of a good way for us to solve [it]."

The answer is to stop this atomic money train before it blows up the station. President Obama could delay these unnecessary, unaffordable new nuclear weapons programs until our policy debate can catch up to defense contractors' plans to push their programs through an all-too-willing Congress.

Judging from Tuesday's debate, we got a lot of work to do.