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Shrinking Warhead Stocks Mean Uncertain Future for Nuclear Triad

Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call
Hagel’s confirmation was dogged by a Global Zero report he co-authored that proposed eliminating the nation’s intercontinental ballistic missiles.

The Pentagon has vowed to preserve the famed nuclear triad despite President Barack Obama’s goal to cut strategic nuclear weapons by as much as a third, avoiding — at least for now — a heated political debate over the future of the nation’s land-, sea- and air-based delivery systems.

At some point, though, the nuclear arsenal may simply become too small to justify the expense of maintaining and replacing the aging bombers, submarines and intercontinental ballistic missiles that make up the triad. Where that point might be, however, is a matter of intense debate.

Indeed, any discussion of altering the triad is a political minefield. The Cold War construct was an accidental doctrine that grew out of intense service rivalries in the 1950s and 1960s. But in the intervening decades, it has become sacrosanct in many quarters, due as much to parochial interests as strategic concerns.

Earlier this year, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s confirmation was dogged by a Global Zero report he co-authored that proposed eliminating the nation’s intercontinental ballistic missiles as part of bilateral negotiations with Russia.

To quell criticism and ultimately win Senate support, Hagel pledged to stand by the triad. Modernizing all three legs, he said, should be a “national priority.”

Just hours after Obama used a June 19 speech in Berlin to call for nuclear reductions, Hagel filled in some blanks and once again vowed to protect the triad.

“As we pursue these reductions, let me emphasize three things — three things that will not change,” Hagel said June 19 at the University of Nebraska. “First, the U.S. will maintain a ready and credible deterrent. Second, we will retain a triad of bombers, ICBMs and ballistic missile submarines. Third, we will make sure that our nuclear weapons remain safe, secure, ready and effective.”

Hagel’s comments might table, temporarily, any official discussion about the future of the triad. On Capitol Hill, Republicans and Democrats alike do not appear to be even considering the possibility of abandoning the three-pronged nuclear deterrent.

“We ought to start off with the premise that we want to keep the triad,“ Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin said last week.

But it is nonetheless a topic that lawmakers and defense officials alike will revisit in the coming years, particularly as the high bills for building new long-range bombers, ballistic missile submarines and ICBMs begin to mount.

Broaching a Dyad

Some current and former military officials have attempted to at least lay the groundwork for that debate in recent years. Adm. Mike Mullen made headlines just days before retiring as the military’s top officer in 2011, when he uttered the word “dyad” in a speech, saying maintaining the triad might become cost prohibitive the smaller the nuclear arsenal gets.

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