Why a TRIAD?

By Rear Admiral William J. Holland Jr., U.S. Navy (Retired)

A recent tract by retired Air Force Major General Roger Burg advertises the utility of strategic deterrent forces based ashore. 1 General Burg’s essay is representative of a reignited interest in the reasoning behind forces armed with nuclear weapons. This is important because the current attention on this aspect of our national defense centers only on cost. This emphasis on budget and national debt risks turning strategic nuclear weapons into an affair of accountants rather than of political leaders, social scientists, and military officers.

Reviewing the fundamental missions of these weapons is useful to appreciate the rationale for their deployment and to establish the grounds for discussions on how best to “use” them.

• To deter the use or threatened use of such weapons against the United States or its allies

• To help deter massive conventional attacks against our allies

• To discourage proliferation by fielding forces large and versatile enough so that seeking advantage is futile, i.e., the massive investment required to match or overcome these forces is beyond the reach of all but the largest nations and will threaten to bankrupt even them

In essence, unlike all other weapon systems, the goal of these weapons is to prevent their use.

For naval officers who concern themselves with strategic deterrence and nuclear weapons, the need for forces other than those in U.S. submarines seems counterintuitive. The utility of weapons beyond those deployed in a secure, safe, and flexible structure that possesses all the attributes for strategic deterrence is hard to understand. Naval officers are not alone in this thinking; the utility of land-based forces has been questioned as far back as 1961, when the conclusions of the Strategic Air Command war game that year included eliminating intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). 2

How Did We Get Here?

The ideas surrounding deterrence began to be formed in the late 1940s, after it became clear the United States would not be the sole possessor of nuclear weapons. The military strategy of the United Sates at the time was dominated by Air Force officers who came from the lineage of “strategic bombing.” Airplanes—then the sole delivery mechanism for atomic weapons—appealed to U.S. political leaders, who saw this strategy reducing the need for building an expensive navy and maintaining a large army.

With defense leadership absorbed in a reorganization and downsizing after World War II, consideration of a situation in which the Soviet Union also would possess atomic weapons and delivery systems that could threaten the United States began in the RAND Corporation, a federally funded research center sponsored by the Air Force. Begun as research on how to conduct war with nuclear weapons, the debate turned to the difficulty of the “balance of terror.” 3 For some time, those discussions and arguments rarely involved military leadership except as they might affect force size, organization, and posture.

By the 1960s, ideas about how such a war would occur or what an exchange of weapons would mean captured the interests of political scientists and related scholars in major political science institutions across the country. Actual military concerns were focused not on use or utility but on force structure and technical improvements. When arms limitations negotiations began, the Air Force and the Navy established organizations to monitor proposals and outcomes, generally suspicious of moves that were seen as reducing the influence of their respective organizations.

The output of these studies and their resulting publications pointed to the vulnerability of land-based strategic forces and were influential in the policy shift from massive retaliation in the Eisenhower administration to flexible response under President John Kennedy. These considerations led to requirements to harden the missile bases and protect the bomber fields. At the same time, the Polaris submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) had come into being as the most important Navy program. By the beginning of the Reagan administration, the triad, a “bastard child of inter-service rivalries” according to Frank Miller, was in place.

But the vulnerability of basing schemes anchored ashore was never solved. The many design attempts all foundered on the geographical reality that such a basing mode could not move or, if it could (train mobile), required a footprint too large to be feasible. Unless used to preempt (first strike)—an option that seems never to have been considered in the United States after General Thomas Powers retired from command of the Strategic Air Command in the early 1960s 4 —every land-based force has to rely on a warning system and short-fused command-and-control arrangements to “launch under attack” (LUA).

Development and deployment of the ICBM and SLBM systems did not receive universal approbation within their respective services. The Navy’s aviation community objected violently when a carrier was eliminated from the budget after Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Arleigh Burke mandated that all portions of the Navy had to shift funds to support building Polaris submarines. In the Air Force, the supporters of bombers were indignant at the diversion of funds from bombers to missile development.

Repeated studies of the various alternatives through the 1960s and ’70s all demonstrated the survivability of the sea-based system. Most were not well received in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, suspicious of maritime domains and anxious to avoid the cost associated with the sea-based leg. Repeated attempts to find a basing mode for the land-based missiles that bolstered the economic arguments all lost in face of utility (dependent on LUA), survivability (none), and accuracy (Trident D5 SLBMs would be as accurate as the land-based missiles.).

The result of the quandary was continuation of three different delivery systems and basing modes, each with its own advocates, vested interests, and performance criteria. As the Soviet Union imploded, evidence for the continued necessity for nuclear stand-off decreased, and senior leadership and attention in both civilian and military circles drifted away from nuclear weapons matters. What little public discussion there was focused on reduction in the number of nuclear warheads. Among the results of this shift of attention were difficulties in maintaining strict control of weapons and rigid adherence to procedures for their care and use. Air Force problems with these issues led to questions about how the Navy escaped these same problems.

Personal attention at the operating level, a heritage from pre-World War II submarines reinforced by Admiral Hyman Rickover’s strict regimen, direct and immediate involvement at the basic organization levels, and intrusive and demanding oversight by superiors characterize the Navy’s care for the weapons assigned to it. Direct and personal experience in the operation and maintenance of nuclear reactors and in the custody and handling of nuclear weapons exists at every level of command. This personal involvement, while often a matter of jest by fellow officers outside this community—who comment that “the Navy’s nuclear weapons are managed by the most obsessive-compulsive organization in the world”—is nevertheless widely known and respected both in the Navy and by civilian scientists and political leaders.

General Burg’s Flawed Analysis

Promoting the ICBM and long-range bombers in his analysis, General Burg invests them with the following attributes:

• The ICBMs present an unambiguous target. An enemy must attack them to try to limit damage to his own country. Such an attack would be apparent and the source identifiable, as opposed to incremental reductions of submarines or bombers by secret or sneak attacks.

• ICBM fields are a weapons sink. An attack on these heavily fortified silos would largely deplete an enemy weapons’ inventory.

• ICBMs’ high alert rates make them more responsive than bombers and submarines.

• Land-based communications links provide faster response to orders than those to submarines.

• The 400 ICBMs are an offensive threat that can overwhelm any defense.

• ICBMs have a long history of reliability that will hedge any disruption of one of the Triad’s other legs.

• ICBMs have the lowest operating costs and lowest recapitalization cost.

• Because of bombers’ long, slow flight times, weapons deployed in bombers are less threatening, thereby improving strategic stability.

• The visibility of bombers permits their use as a signal in confrontational situations.

Understanding that General Burg’s motive is to define the utility of land-based systems vis-à-vis other systems—i.e., ones based at sea—his lack of understanding of the sea, maritime operations, and long-haul crisis communications is evident in his discussions and his evaluation of what he sees as weaknesses of the sea-based system. His analysis does not contain any argument not aired in the 1980s during the debates around MX basing vis-à-vis the SLBM. The proposition that the land-based missiles were necessary for counter-force targeting (aiming at the enemy missiles’ sites) disappeared once the Trident D5’s accuracy was proven.5

#footnotes The rest of General Burg’s assertions are restatements of positions offered by the various Air Force supporters in the 1980s. One is particularly fallacious: that deterrence does not rely on speed of response but on surety of weapons and will. Independent studies since 1987 have determined that communications to submarines are as reliable and efficient as those to ground-based forces. 6

That ICBMs are needed as a hedge against failure of other legs of the triad is based on the proposition that someday antisubmarine measures will threaten the continued survivability of submarines. The wish that space-based technology will make the oceans transparent, a common hope hyped in the 1980s, seems to have died, stabbed to death by geography and physics. A proposition that giant data bases might allow analytical determination of submarine positions ignores the role of the search vehicles necessary to provide inputs on a near-real-time basis. While such operations analyses can work in relatively small areas with multiple sensors over short periods, persons understanding sensor limitations and probability of detection in large ocean areas realize such measures are futile regardless of the size of the computer or its data capacity. There exists not even a vision of a mechanism that threatens the survivability of the submarine-based leg.

Attention From All Hands

The Nuclear Posture Review to be conducted this year offers an opportunity to evaluate how these various basing methods perform, how they compare in effectiveness and cost, and what future needs should be considered in their continuance and/or modernization. These sorts of studies require the attention of persons who know and understand the sea and its vastness, cloak of invisibility, and freedom for maneuver. Articulating these characteristics is neither an easy task nor one performed well by persons who lack an experiential basis for assumed knowledge.

Casual accusations of inadequacy and inferiority of the submarine-based nuclear force’s capability need to be answered whenever they arise. While less than 5 percent of the Navy’s personnel are engaged in the strategic deterrence enterprise, this is the Navy’s primary mission, requiring attention if not dedication from all hands. Every officer who has served at sea knows how hard finding and attacking submarines is. This practical expertise is important in informing decision makers of the utility of the submarine-based component of the triad and preventing perversion by weak or specious arguments.

Ultimately, the fate of the triad is in the hands of political leadership. The services, for a myriad of reasons, will not willingly enter a debate on the utility of the arm under the aegis of the other service. General Burg’s article notwithstanding, the mantle of jointness suggests that flag officers in joint billets in particular, but active-duty officers in general, not comment on issues other than “promoting the administration’s agenda,” which currently appears to be modernizing all three legs. However, this gentleman’s agreement should not be a reason for those knowledgeable to avoid explaining the advantages of the sea-based leg. On the contrary, those singular facets of the sea-based systems that are unique to its utility need to be explained and promoted. Policy makers, most of whose experience with the sea involves flying over it, should not be left adrift without the experiential knowledge that comes from those whose lives have been spent on, over, and under the sea.

When he promoted development of a strategic weapon system based in submarines, Admiral Burke was accused of improper conduct, trespassing on missions assigned to the Air Force. The most authoritative military voices in the debate over MX basing were Admirals Thomas Hayward and James Watkins, Chiefs of Naval Operations, who questioned the theory behind the proposed basing schemes and the devotion of so much of the Defense Department’s resources on them. 7 Their grasp of the fundamentals of deterrence and alternative weapon systems shifted the country’s strategic focus from land to sea. As in times past, measured arguments and strong and experienced voices are needed to influence the next generation of these weapon systems.

The compromises that brought the triad into being remain and are likely to result in continuation of all three legs into the future because change requires more political energy and analysis than exists, at least at present. However, as costs mount, the modernization programs will come under even greater scrutiny. While the Air Force leadership is likely to favor funding the new bomber at the expense of the ICBM, industrial interests will continue to promote the ICBM leg, and elected officials in the affected manufacturing and basing states will lobby hard for the missile systems. Navy spokesmen cannot ignore these discussions, allowing internal U.S. concerns to work to the detriment of maintaining the sea-based leg.


1. MGEN Roger W. Burg, USAF, “America’s Nuclear Backbone, The Value of ICBMs and the New Ground Based Strategic Deterrent,” The Mitchell Institute, The Air Force Association, Washington, DC, 2017.

2. VADM Gerry Miller, USN (Ret.), Naval Historical Foundation – Naval Submarine League History Seminar, Washington, DC, 14 April 2012.

3. Bernard Brodie, Strategy in the Missile Age (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1959).

4. Steven A. Pomeroy, An Untaken Road (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2016).

5. The Honorable Franklin Miller, remarks at the Naval Submarine League History Seminar, National War College, 14 April 2011.

6. Ashton B. Carter, “Communications Technologies and Vulnerabilities,” in Ashton B. Carter, John D. Steinbruner, and Charles A. Zraket, eds., Managing Nuclear Operations (Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution, 1987).

7. U.S. Congress, “MX Missile Basing System and Related Issues,” Hearings before the Committee on Armed Services, U.S. Senate, 98th Congress, 1st sess., 18, 20-22, 26 April and 3 May 1983.

Admiral Holland has been a contributor to Proceedings and Naval History since 1975 and has won prizes in the Arleigh Burke and General Prize Essay Contests. His active-duty assignments included service as Director of Strategic and Theater Nuclear Warfare on the staff of the Chief of Naval Operations during most of the MX basing debates and the planning for the Trident D5 warhead. In retirement, he served as president of the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association Educational Foundation, vice president and then member of the Board of Directors of the Naval Historical Foundation, and on the board of the Naval Submarine League.





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