The New Nuclear Triad

photo: AP/Charlie Riedel

Defense Secretary James Mattis on June 14 gave Congress an update on the 2017 Nuclear Posture Review, saying, “We’re looking at each leg of the triad and we’re looking at each weapon inside each leg.”

“What I’m looking for,” he said, “is a deterrent that will be most compelling to make certain that these weapons are never used.”

This review will establish U.S. nuclear policy and strategy for the near future and shape some of the most important military modernization programs: the new nuclear triad.

These new programs, the Columbia Class ballistic missile submarine, the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent ballistic missile, and the B-21 Raider strategic bomber and Long Range Stand-Off cruise missile compose the three legs of this new triad. In this first of two features, The Cipher Brief will examine the Columbia submarine and Ground Based Strategic Deterrent.

The nuclear triad emerged as a strategic concept during the Cold War as the surest means of deterring another nuclear power from attacking the United States. ICBMs act as the first-response weapon; ballistic missile submarines act as an undetectable, and therefore survivable, second strike; and strategic bombers offer the flexibility of first or second strike but can be most easily recalled. Each component complicates an adversary’s decision to attack. In theory, an adversary will not strike unless it can overcome each of the three components of the triad and the expense and low likelihood of success deters it from attacking first.

The triad can only act as a deterrent if it is credible or “compelling” as Mattis said, and the aging U.S. nuclear forces are in danger of losing their deterrent value. Replacement programs are in the works, but budget sequestration could delay the schedule for deploying these new systems before the older ones age out. Meanwhile, Russia and China are modernizing their own nuclear triads.

The first Columbia Class submarine is expected to enter service in 2031 as a replacement for the Ohio Class. According to former Chief of Naval Operations retired Admiral Jonathan Greenert, the Columbia “is designed to be quieter than any submarine the Intelligence Community projects into the 2030s.  Further, there is an acoustic superiority program underway to assure its continued acoustic advantage throughout its life (approximately into the 2080s).  Columbia’s propulsion, environmental control, and nuclear power plant are state-of-the-art.” Additionally, each Columbia submarine’s nuclear reactor will not require refueling for its entire lifespan, cutting out the two-year period required to refuel an Ohio Class submarine. The Pentagon estimates the acquisition cost for the Columbia program will be $128 billion.

Each of the 12 Columbia Class submarine will carry 16 Trident II submarine-launched ballistic missiles armed with eight nuclear warheads. The new sub will also be more flexible than its predecessor. The large missile compartment could be used for special operations equipment or unmanned underwater vehicles, and Greenert adds “its extensive electronics and communications suite make it a candidate to transform to a ‘stealthy underwater’ joint operations headquarters.”

The other ballistic missile leg of the new triad is currently known as the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent. Still in the early planning stages, the program will likely receive a new name once the Pentagon awards the program to one of three contractors: Boeing, Lockheed Martin, or Northrup Grumman.

The GBSD will replace the Minuteman III, a missile that first entered service in 1970. More than just the missile, the program will also modernize the command-and-control centers and the silos that store the missiles. The Pentagon estimates the program will cost between $85 billion and $140 billion from fiscal years 2017 to 2046 to deliver 666 missiles and associated facilities. Former Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James told The Cipher Brief why these updates are so important. “When it comes to command and control, the new system will be designed to increase flexibility and have the ability to more quickly retarget the missiles, which ultimately gives the president more options and decision space.”

As these programs move from the planning stages to production, Greenert and James cite the budget issues that will affect the services. Both the Navy and Air Force prioritize their nuclear programs, but the pinch would be felt elsewhere in conventional ship and aircraft programs. Greenert said “Pending a dramatic change, there will not be sufficient funds in projected shipbuilding budgets to support Navy’s Long Range Shipbuilding Plan,” while James added that a larger budget will not happen unless Congress “can make some kind of deal, whether it’s deal for a couple of years or it’s a total lifting of sequestration.”

“This must happen, and I’m still not seeing movement toward that. That is worrisome to me,” she said.

Developing these nuclear programs concurrently comes at great cost, but the weapons promise to be more than just updated parts or software upgrades. Both the Columbia Class submarine and the GBSD promise to expand the flexibility and decision-making options available to military planners and ultimately the one person who can decide to use these weapons, the president.

Although the new nuclear triad will be more capable than earlier iterations, if it succeeds as America’s strategic nuclear deterrent, then it will never have to be used at all.

Will Edwards is an international producer at The Cipher Brief. Follow him on Twiter @_wedwards.