Rethink the Triad

By Rear Admiral F. W. Lacroix, U.S. Navy (Retired)

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) indicated that the Ohio replacement program could cost about $100 billion (2010 dollars). The Navy later revised that figure upward and estimated that, using then-year dollars, the program would cost $139 billion. It expects the first submarine to cost $14.5 billion, with $8.8 billion in construction costs and $5.7 billion in nonrecurring engineering work. Subsequent submarines are expected to cost $9.8 billion each. 2

The current U.S. bomber fleet consists of three generations of aircraft facing retirement toward the end of the next decade. Air Force officials indicate they hope to field between 80 and 100 of the new bombers, now known as the B-21, in the future, with the first to enter service around 2025. The Air Force plans to hold the procurement cost for each bomber to $550 million, with the total cost of the program to reach $36–$56 billion. In 2014, however, the Air Force acknowledged that this cost did not include research-and-development funding, which, according to some estimates, could amount to between $20 and $45 billion if the program follows the trends set by previous bomber programs. The per-unit cost of $550 million also would rise if the Air Force were to buy fewer than the planned 80–100 bombers. As a result, many analysts agree that the final cost of the bomber program could reach $60–$80 billion. 3

In 2014, the Air Force decided to deploy a new missile in its existing Minuteman ICBM infrastructure rather than to extend the life of the Minuteman III. The Air Force expects the program to cost about $62 billion.

In short, the entire nuclear triad force structure is planned for modernization during the next 20 years. In addition to the force structure mentioned above, funding is planned for other subset (weapon and component) aspects of the nuclear modernization program. The CBO estimates that over the 2015–24 period, the plans for nuclear forces would cost $348 billion, an average of about $35 billion per year. 4 Others have estimated the total modernization cost at $1 trillion.

What Are We Facing?

Since the Cold War, Russia’s military forces and its leadership dynamic have changed. President Vladimir Putin has consolidated central authority. With the goal of restoring the old empire, he has resorted to “a coarse and primitive nationalism” as he probes the limits of NATO and the West’s resolve. Russian nuclear forces are being transitioned to more reliable types. Most disturbingly, at the same time, Russia has lowered the threshold for the use of nonstrategic nuclear weapons. Some also would argue that tensions between Washington and Moscow have reached a post-Cold War high as Russia’s military has been rebuilt and its adventurism has increased. Russia also ranks high in the number of cyber attacks launched on the United States. 5

China has modernized all aspects of its nuclear capability and is closing the gap that existed with the United States during the Cold War. For today’s China, military capabilities of several types—including nuclear, conventional, space, and cyber—are all essential components of its credible strategic deterrent. China also has become more nationalistic and aggressive as its economy slows, and as internal tensions mount and become more evident. All important aspects of the U.S. information-technology infrastructure—national security, economic, health, power, and communications—continuously endure the probing of Chinese cyber warfare units. The Chinese believe that space weapons—like nuclear weapons before them—will alter the nature of war. 6 China also seeks to exclude legitimate passage in the South and East China seas, indicating that, following its economic peak, China, like Russia, apparently is trying to determine the limits of international forbearance. 7

Iran and Korea sometimes have been described as paradoxes. Nonetheless, history provides some clarity. North Korea has presented one of the most vexing and persistent problems in U.S. foreign policy in the post-Cold War period. It continued to develop its long-range ballistic-missile and nuclear weapon programs while under U.N. sanction. From the beginning, the United States has not had a particularly productive relationship with the brutal and isolated authoritarian regime of Kim Jong-un, which continued to develop its nuclear and missile capabilities in the absence of any agreement it considered binding. 8 Kim Jong-un has conducted senior leadership purges and consolidated power while emphasizing his intransigence with regard to nuclear cooperation and presents a continuing challenge to the United States and its Pacific allies. 9 North Korea’s recent successful submarine ballistic-missile launch in April 2016 transposed the program from a sideline concern to a serious emerging nuclear threat, highlighting both the grave potential of persistent adversaries and the limits of U.S. understanding and influence. 10

Iran and the P5+1 agreed in July 2015 to restrictions affecting Iran’s potential time line toward development of a nuclear weapons capability. Soon after, Iran resumed its short- and medium-range ballistic-missile development as part of what the Iranian president stated were the defensive-capabilities requirements called for in the country’s “strategic policy.”

Since the U.S.-engineered coup in Iran in 1953, U.S.-Iranian relations have been an ebb and flow of false assumptions, mistakes, and misjudgments. 11 At this point, Iran states its nuclear program is for medical purposes only. Time will unveil the reality; in the meantime, vigilance is required.

As China and Russia complete their nuclear force-structure transformations, probe new frontiers in cyberspace, and reshape their approaches to international relations, they bear little resemblance to the adversary we had in mind when we developed the theory of deterrence, then designed and fielded the U.S. nuclear-deterrent force architecture. They and new enigmatic nuclear-weapons-capable states will be the focus of deterrence objectives of our modernized force structure, notionally during the next 60 years of this century.

Reconsidering the Options

The Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) of 2010, our most recent, proposed a different benchmark deterrent challenge than Bernard Brodie when it noted that “al Qaeda and their extremist allies are seeking nuclear weapons. We must assume they would use such weapons if they managed to obtain them. The vulnerability to theft or seizure of vast stocks of such nuclear material around the world, and the availability of sensitive equipment and technologies on the black market, create a serious risk that terrorists may acquire what they need to build a nuclear weapon.” The NPR view was validated as recently as this year in Belgium, when the airport bombers later were found to have been seeking to explode a “dirty” nuclear bomb. 12

The NPR, which pointed out the change in the nuclear threat in the past six decades, also reset the deterrent priority and raised the following questions:

• Given post-Cold War road signs, is the nuclear triad, modernized for strategic deterrence over the coming years, the appropriate flagship deterrent investment?

• In light of the increasing importance of additional deterrent considerations, should the United States pause and take a broader view of the concept of strategic deterrence? Naturally, the ominous nature of nuclear weapons will continue to influence any reallocation of resources. But as one thoughtful citizen noted, “When the lights are out in Chicago, Washington, and New York after a precursor cyber attack, won’t we all wonder why a bomber is sitting on the runway in South Dakota?”

The foregoing implies that in its approach to strategic-deterrent modernization, the United States appears to have been unable to accept that all theories are provisional and knowledge increases with time. 13

A reappraisal is appropriate because of the complexity that a parallel (and likely) cyber attack would impose on National Command Authority (NCA) decision-making. Such a rethinking is all the more appropriate because the changed international political-military environment requires that, before investing in modernizing the current force structure, at least two of Bernard Brodie’s first-order questions deserve to be asked and answered anew. 14 Specifically: What will be the requirements for deterrence? Against what do nuclear weapons deter? 15

Answering these core questions again might clarify the nature of our deterrent needs. Also, framing the answers in the post-Cold War era may remind us that the decision to deter the use of nuclear weapons is a decision to opt for the defensive—that is, it is a decision to reject a “first-strike” option. Even more than in the past, this selection puts enormous pressure on our intelligence and warning (I&W) assets. In the progressing cyber environment, not only can the NCA expect increasing “fog” and deliberate deception, but also it must remain aware of the possibility that some of our retaliatory forces could be preemptively (and easily?) compromised.

‘Deterrence Can Fail’

Beyond these considerations, it is important to remember that the triad was developed when the predominant technology effort under way was to collapse “circular error probability” or to improve the accuracy of the nuclear delivery systems. Today, from the viewpoint of cyber systems, the parallel effort is to collapse the datum or to pinpoint the location of nuclear launch platforms. The extent to which an adversary has real-time knowledge of the location of our deterrent platforms and also has the capability to interfere with our assured connectivity to them determines the extent to which the triad is vulnerable/neutralized and our deterrent could be ineffective. Indeed, the triad as a concept appears more vulnerable now than ever before.

None of this is new. What is changing dramatically is the ability of our adversaries to search and to affect cyberspace to our disadvantage, and there is no reason to expect this trend to improve. 16 Clearly, we are most vulnerable in the face of China or Russia and will to become more so as the cyber erosion of our deterrent continues. Recent events also remind us that as we seek multipolar stability in the future, we must be able to ensure deterrent efficacy in the face of each emerging nuclear-weapon-capable adversary, while considering the appropriate deterrent fit on both our adversaries and allies. We witnessed this need for suitability when Russia and China objected to defensive systems being provided to our allies for protection from Iranian and North Korean missiles, on the basis that the Russian and Chinese strategic deterrents would be diluted by such an effort on our part. The consideration of defensive systems also seems to imply that the complexity of the future discussion of deterrence has moved beyond the compelling simplicity of the triad. The fielding of these systems is the material acceptance of this. New adversary capabilities also may prompt the reconsideration our own defensive capacity. 17

As new nuclear-weapons powers emerge and before we modernize our triad, we must recall Brodie’s reminder, “The fact is that deterrence can fail.” 18

While China maintains a public stance on second strike, the possibility of a Chinese first strike in outer space cannot be excluded. 19 Deterrence calculus may play differently in our new nuclear adversaries’ minds in the future. If so, other tools may play an even greater role in our deterrence strategy—including those supporting assured communications with adversaries, and those supporting diplomacy, conventional preemption, and the NCA. Such tools would need to provide more thorough I&W and greater resilience under cyber attack. 20

As emphasized by NPR 2010, maximizing “Presidential decision time” is important. The issue likely will be especially complex in a cyber-threat environment. Investments must be made in NCA cyber protection to maximize information clarity, process discipline, and control and execution under degraded conditions.

The nuclear-triad modernization efforts originated in the services, which are chartered to train, equip, and support our military forces. The B-21 and Ohio replacement proposals were approved by the Joint Requirements Oversight Council, the military-procurement advisory board of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, before being underwritten by the Office of the Secretary of Defense. This signals that from the perspective of the Department of Defense, the military requirement for these platforms has been endorsed. Once endorsed, the cost impact of these proposals on the services’ budgets became the dominant topics of discussion, both in the DOD and in Congress, in the years immediately following. 21

In the case of our strategic deterrent, we seem to be faced with an interesting process breakdown. It appears illogical for the nation to commit to spending up to $1 trillion in the coming years on modernizing the nuclear triad when the most recent NPR noted that “the threat of global nuclear war is remote but the risk of nuclear attack has increased.” 22 This statement implies a different set of programmatic proposals and priorities than the military might have been comfortable with.

These differing funding priorities also would be focused on protection from within—e.g., efforts to deal with potential domestic nuclear terrorism. 23 Another priority would be addressing the cyber warfare aspects previously mentioned. The focus of strategic-deterrent funding also would reorient to face U.S. Northern Command (the military-to-Homeland Security linkage) and U.S. Cyber Command priority challenges, as well as service modernization concerns.

In the face of our adversaries’ morphing, the current threat-to-program link becomes seemingly illogical. It is inconsistent to assume that, as the United States’ ability to influence events worldwide has waned, the efficacy of its deterrent capability, based on a Cold War force architecture, remains intact. Without linkage back to coherent strategy and policy, lack of logic pervades the discussion concerning the nation’s nuclear modernization, and irrationality extends into the details.

Budget Is Policy

In the case of the sea-based deterrent, initial Ohio replacement affordability arguments were based in part on the program’s minimal cost with respect to its percentage of the overall DOD budget. This was a misleading premise at best, because immediately following the program’s approval, congressional lobbying was aggressive, and service leadership readily accepted the concept of a national sea-based deterrent fund to address the financial burden to DOD and the Navy—and hence offset the potential impact of Ohio replacement funding on the need to fund other ship construction programs.

Naturally, because of implementation details the actual impact of this supplemental fund on the Navy’s ship construction funding over time never will be known. By May 2016, the U.S. Strategic Command welcomed the same dedicated-funding approach to the Air Force modernization of the ICBM leg of the triad, replacing the air-launched cruise missiles and funding the new B-21 bomber. 24

The end point of the program and budget skullduggery initiated by the Navy when it began its quest for rescue funding for the Ohio replacement reaches well beyond the Navy. The decisions made will have unintended consequences on this nation’s strategic deterrence well into the future. Successful innovation during interwar periods is the result of a country’s politico-strategic environment, but more directly of the leadership’s ability to recognize and judge the degree to which technology provides opportunity. It is then hostage to the cultural climate within the military. Misapplying the budget forecloses the widened path to the nation’s appropriate strategic deterrent.

So what does all this mean? One implication is that the focus of our strategic-deterrence discussion has been biased and disoriented in recent years as we have been anchored in how to deal with the cost of modernizing a residual force structure that may not be an effective deterrent to future threats.

The addition of new nuclear-weapons-capable states coupled with the modernization and changing outlook of Russia and China are facts with which we will have to deal. Though NPR 2010 optimistically asserted that the threat of global nuclear war has receded, effective deterrence remains important. The nature of the threat is broader and more complex than when the triad was established. So should we spend enormous sums of money modernizing a force structure conceived in the last century without validating its future efficacy?

This is a ready-made question for the incoming administration, which should reexamine our strategic deterrence posture for the 21st century with a straightforward objective: to ensure national strategic deterrence and nuclear stability by reassessing, prioritizing, and funding the tools that will provide our leaders, diplomats, and military with what is needed to deter those adversaries who may be less stable, more aggressive, and more capable than in the past.

1. Bernard Brodie, ed., The Absolute Weapon: Atomic Power and World Order (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1946).

2. Amy F. Woolf, U.S. Strategic Nuclear Forces, Background, Developments, and Issues (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, March 2016), .

3. Ibid.

4. Congressional Budget Office, “Projected Costs of U.S. Nuclear Forces, 2015 to 2024,” 22 January 2015, .

5. Robert D. Kaplan, “Eurasia’s Coming Anarchy,” Foreign Affairs, vol. 95, no. 2 (March/April 2016), 33. Federation of American Scientists, “FAS Nuclear Notebook: Russian Nuclear Forces 2016,” 18 April 2016, . ADM James G. Stavridis, USN (Ret.), “Avoiding the New Cold War with Russia,” Foreign Policy, 20 April 2016, .

6. Thérèse Delpech, Nuclear Deterrence in the 21st Century: Lessons from the Cold War for a New Era of Strategic Piracy (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2012), 149, .

7. Kaplan, “Eurasia’s Coming Anarchy,” 36.

8. Emma Chanlett-Avery et al., North Korea: U.S. Relations, Nuclear Diplomacy, and Internal Situation (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, January 2016), .

9. Don Oberdorfer and Robert Carlin, The Two Koreas: A Contemporary History (New York: Basic Books, 2013), 432.

10. Ju-min Park and David Brunnstrom, “North Korea Test-Fires Two Missiles,” Reuters Business, 28 April 2016.

11. Kenneth M. Pollack, The Persian Puzzle: The Conflict Between Iran and America (New York: Random House, 2004).

12. Tim Smart, “Brussels Suffers Dual Attacks at Airport and Subway Station,” U.S. News & World Report, 22 March 2016.

13. Andrew Hill and Stephen Gerras, “Systems of Denial: Strategic Resistance to Military Innovation,” Naval War College Review, vol. 69, no. 1 (Winter 2016), 111.

14. Bernard Brodie, “The Development of Nuclear Strategy,” International Security, vol. 2, no. 4 (Spring 1978), 65–83.

15. Ibid.

16. In competition, only two U.S. schools rank in the top 12 programming schools in the world, the remainder are from China and Russia; .

17. See “Time to reassess U.S. missile defense,” National Institute for Public Policy, 15 July 2016.

18. Bernard Brodie, Strategy in the Missile Age (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2007), .

19. Delpech, Nuclear Deterrence.

20. Secretary Gates exposed this approach in 2008 in a speech at the Carnegie Center for international Peace: ”As we know from recent experience, attacks on our communications systems and infrastructure will be part of future war. Our policy goal here is to prevent anyone from being able to take down our systems.”

21. Megan Eckstein, “Congress Saves Ohio-Replacment Sub Fund for Second Time in 2 Months,” USNI News, 11 June 2015, .

22. Nuclear Posture Review Report (Washington, DC: Department of Defense, 2010), iv, .

23. Arthur Waldron, “Could Four Simmering Global Crises Boil Over?” Orbis, vol. 60, no. 2 (Spring 2016), 162–87.

24. Dan Parsons, “STRATCOM Deputy Chief: Air Force Welcomes Protected Fund for Bomber, Nuclear Missile Modernization,” Defense Daily, 6 May 2016.

During his 35-year career in the Navy, Rear Admiral Lacroix served as Director of Navy Program Planning; Director, Operations Division, Office of the Navy Budget; and Director of Force Structure, Resources and Assessments (J-8), Joint Staff.


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