Saving The Nuclear Triad

by PETER HUESSY March 12, 2018

I was summoned to the Pentagon early on the morning of April 20, 1994. The Nuclear Posture Review [NPR] was being put together. My USAF colonel friend was worried. One proposal being seriously considered? The total elimination of our 500 land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles [ICBMs] and the complete de-nuclearization of all of our strategic bombers. If true, the US nuclear deterrent would consist of our submarines at sea and at their bases in Georgia and Washington. Two targets on land and roughly four to six submarines at sea, at most. We would be painting bull's-eyes on our nuclear forces. I left and took with me an unclassified chart he gave me with the proposed NPR numbers of zero Minuteman ICBMs.

Within a half hour I walked up the steps to the Russell Senate Office Building entrance on Constitution Avenue. The elevator is there to the right just inside the guard's desk. After a short ride up I was in front of the offices of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Down the long corridor to the right, with its awe inspiring twenty feet ceilings, I found the unmarked door. I knocked. The door opened. Without saying anything I put the one-page option chart in front of the nuclear subcommittee staffer, a friend of many years. "This is what is being considered" I said.

The staffer looked at the paper and replied "You're kidding?" He picked up the phone. He mouthed to me, "This is proof there is a God!" In fact, that very morning at 10am the Commander of our strategic nuclear forces, Admiral Henry Chiles, and General Charles Horner, Commander of US Space Command were scheduled to testify. The staffer quickly dictated an opening statement for his boss and suggested a few questions to ask.

That morning at just before 10, at 9:43am, the hearing commenced. I sat just behind Admiral Chiles and General Horner. Senators Exon, Levin, Thurmond, Lott, Bryan, Faircloth, Warner, Smith and Kemphorne were present. The full committee ranking member was Strom Thurmond. The Strategic Forces subcommittee ranking member was Trent Lott. There were few other people in the audience. The room was one of the small hearing rooms, Russell 222.

Senator Thurmond was asked by Chairman Exon if he had any comments before the hearing heard testimony. He said he did. His statement took the Committee by surprise. In part he said "For fifty years we have had a bi-partisan national security policy in areas where the survival of the United States was at issue. Ten administrations agreed that we would deter the nuclear threat with...a policy of deterrence with a surely survivable triad of nuclear forces, that no potential enemy could have any hope of survival if they unleashed an attack on us."

Thurmond then continued: "I am afraid we may be seeing that unanimity of policy...begin to slip away. I hope I am wrong because the world is more dangerous, no less; there are more nuclear foes, not less...Reports are coming to me of the outcomes being considered in the nuclear posture review. The working group looking at future force structure looked at a list of 21 options. They recommended a force structure like what we have now, a strong Triad. But the chairman of the reportedly going to recommend to the Secretary that we abandon ICBMs. He is going to recommend that we give up the Triad."

Thurmond further explained that while the Cold War was over and we no longer faced the threat "of the Soviet Empire", we "do not know the permanent shape of the future...Threats to our vital interests are not going to disappear. We may even see new threats to the US homeland. In a still dangerous world, it is a serious error to let our fundamental security policy erode, or allow the irrevocable loss of vital capabilities."

"At a time when weapons of mass destruction are proliferating and falling into the hands of outlaw states, the United States appears to be going out of the nuclear business by default, if not design."

Looking directly at the Commander of STRATCOM Thurmond asked whether the Admiral would support such a proposal to eliminate the ICBM force. Admiral Chiles fully supported the "Minuteman as the ICBM force of the future" and noted "the Triad concept remains appropriate. The complimentary strengths of each leg combine to provide the necessary operational flexibility to effectively fulfill our charter in the face of an uncertain future."

A few months later, on September 24, when the briefing charts on the Nuclear Posture Review were being loaded in the van to go to Capitol Hill, the Pentagon handlers made sure there were no charts with "0" ICBMs. In fact, they had been deleted. As a result, the US strategic nuclear Triad of submarines, bombers and land-based missiles was preserved.

Just to be sure, in 1995, Senator Kemphorne secured approval by the Congress of an amendment to the defense bill. No unilateral US reductions in the Minuteman fleet were to be allowed. In addition, Senator Baucus of Montana secured a letter from the then President of the United States, William Clinton, to support the deployment and sustainment of 500 Minuteman missiles for the remainder of his term in office. It is the only such letter ever signed by an American President in the 70+years of the nuclear age.

Fast forward to 2010. Over the past fifteen years, all 500 Minuteman missiles have been given new motors and guidance sets in a service life extension program or SLEP. The Minuteman technology was first deployed in these missiles in the early 1970's but now is slated to last until at least 2030. 

We have now completed two additional Nuclear Posture Reviews, one in 2002 and another this year. Congressional law requires Minuteman to last through 2030. An Air Force round-map for the future of Minuteman is nearing completion. A special task force on Minuteman is up and running.

But in our rush to reduce our nuclear weapons and to fully embrace the goal of "Global Zero" we cannot forget the need for what is known as "strategic stability".  In short hand, it means "numbers matter". In a crisis between the United States and Russia, we want neither country to reach for the guns in our respective nuclear holsters. Not early, not later. Never.

How to do that? Remember April 1994. Serious consideration was being given to reducing nuclear weapons to such numbers where the entire number of "targets" that if eliminated could wipe out the US nuclear deterrent was roughly a handful. In such an event, a crisis might invite Russia to strike first-after all, they would have to only eliminate 2 relatively soft military bases where our submarines were based, and then find our submarines at sea.

Today there is some uncertainty about what our future deterrent will be. It could remain at 450 Minuteman and 12 submarines and bombers at multiple bases, as it has through the 1994 and 2002 Nuclear Posture Reviews. Or it could be significantly reduced to meet the targets set in the new START treaty. On the other hand, we could both achieve the new START goals and maintain a robust deterrent. We do not know yet. There is a requirement in the START treaty that we reduce our nuclear platforms by over 180 from the current level around 880.

Removing missiles from submarines, such as reducing tubes from 24 to 20, a number likely on the next generation of submarines coming into service between 2020-30, can be done easily, and does not reduce the number of deployed submarines. For two submarines now in overhaul, eliminating their 48 missiles from the START ceilings would entail no reduction in deterrent power either. As for Minuteman missiles, all have only one warhead each, so reducing these warheads further means eliminating stabilizing platforms. There is a reason we need to maximize our submarine and silo-based platforms. Stability and nuclear calm. That can be done even under the treaty. But there is a right way and a wrong way.

Former Senator John Warner said to me once that when he was Secretary of the Navy his biggest fear was a phone call announcing that one of our nuclear armed submarines-a "boomer"-had not come home. Over time, as former USAF Chief of Staff General Larry Welch has repeatedly warned, our Trident submarines could be taken out-if the oceans became transparent. Both he and Senator Warner have said our insurance policy, now and into the future was 450 Minuteman missiles now deployed over five western states, in the heartland of the United States.

They were and are, for all practical purposes, invulnerable to an effective strike taking them all out. In a crisis, this means a US President need not worry about what former SASC Chairman Sam Nunn warned about, having to "prompt launch" our weapons as quickly as possible in a crisis for fear they would be struck first. Not only is stability enhanced markedly by the full force of Minuteman, the fleet is also the most economical nuclear deterrent in our Triad. We spend less than $1 billion a year on ICBMs, or $1 for every $4200 spent by Uncle Sam. The cost is less than $2 million per missile.

During that summer some decade and a half ago, the Strategic Advisory Group wrote to Admiral Chiles: "...As one looks at options to reduce Minuteman III to very low levels, the implications become especially complex and the risks outweigh the savings...US retaliatory capability is severely reduced and [the] targeting of remaining US forces is greatly simplified."

Thus, not all things from the past should be discarded. There is wisdom in what they wrote to the Admiral. And there remains wisdom in the remarks of the late Senator Strom Thurmond. In this day and age of terror masters and terrorists, of potential misunderstandings and uncertainty, a secure, protected and stable deterrent of 450 Minuteman remains America's best shield against many nuclear dangers. That was so in 1994; and in 2002. It is also the right thing in 2010.   

Peter R. Huessy is Director for Strategic Deterrent Studies at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies as well as President of Geostrategic Analysis, a defense consulting firm he founded in 1981. He is also a guest lecturer on nuclear deterrent policy at the U.S. Naval Academy and formerly Senior Fellow in National Security at the American Foreign Policy Council and JINSA.


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