The Nuclear Triad Is Not the Holy Trinity

An Ohio-Class Submarine, armed with Trident nuclear missiles
An Ohio-Class Submarine, armed with Trident nuclear missiles

W.J. Astore

America’s nuclear triad of land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), sub-launched ballistic missiles (Ohio-class nuclear submarines), and nuclear-capable bombers is a relic of the Cold War.  The triad may have made some sense in a MAD (as in mutually assured destruction) way in the 1960s and 1970s, at the height of the Cold War with the USSR.  But it makes no strategic or financial (or moral) sense today.  Nevertheless, the U.S. is investing $10 billion over the next six years to update land-based ICBMs, missiles that should be decommissioned rather than updated precisely because they are both outdated and redundant.

The most survivable leg of the nuclear triad remains the U.S. Navy’s nuclear submarines, which carry Trident II missiles with multiple warheads.  These submarines are virtually impossible for any potential American foe to locate and sink in any timely fashion, therefore ensuring a survivable nuclear deterrent that is more than sufficient in any conceivable crisis.

Indeed, it’s arguable whether the U.S. needs any nuclear deterrent, given the size of the U.S. military and the power of its conventional military forces.  Even old Cold War warriors like Henry Kissinger have come out in favor of eliminating nuclear weapons from the earth, as did Barack Obama when he first ran for president in 2008.

But morality and common sense quickly disappear when politics and fear-mongering intervene.  States where nuclear missiles are currently based, such as North Dakota and Wyoming, want to keep them in their silos so that federal dollars continue to flow into local and state economies.  Fearful “hawks” point to the existence of nuclear missiles in China or Russia (or even Pakistan!) as the reason why the U.S. needs to maintain nuclear superiority, even though no country comes close to the power and survivability of the U.S. Navy’s Trident submarines.

And let’s not, of course, forget morality.  With Christmas coming, I recall something about “Thou Shall Not Kill” and loving thy neighbor.  Spending scores of billions (maybe even a trillion dollars!) to update America’s nuclear arsenal, an arsenal that has the capacity to unleash genocide against multiple enemies while plunging the planet into nuclear winter, seems more than a little contrary to the Christian spirit, whether at Christmas or indeed any time of the year.

The decision to “invest” in outdated and redundant land-based ICBMs says much about the American moment.  It’s almost as if our government believes the nuclear triad really is the Holy Trinity.  Heck — why else did our country choose to anoint genocidal nuclear missiles as “Peacekeepers“?

It should sadden us all that some American leader of the future may yet utter the line, “We had to destroy the planet to save it.”  Such is the horrifying potential and maddening logic of our nuclear forces.



17 thoughts on “The Nuclear Triad Is Not the Holy Trinity

  1. The problem is deterrence is as much (if not moreso) about psychology as it is about capabilities. It doesn’t matter how big or what the structure of your arsenal is if either your enemies or your allies do not believe you will use it or, if you do, that it will not be as effective as you think it is.

    – We hate nukes because they are so unambiguously scary. This is precisely and paradoxically why they become necessary – no matter how good our conventional forces get, they do not have the same psychological effect and against the prospect of a force with regional conventional superiority (as was the case with the Soviets even in the 1980s and would likely be the case with China in a number of E. Asia scenarios) conventional deterrence is likely to fail. MAD is a bit of a misnomer, for it to work there must be mutually assured unacceptable losses, and it is unclear that the losses from a large-scale conventional attack would be clearly unacceptable until the day when we actually have to demonstrate that – it doesn’t do enough damage fast enough to convince a potential adversary that they could not outmaneuver us and decapitate our initial advantage. This means that at some point against a major adversary conventional deterrence would be doomed to fail. Most of us would rather avoid that.

    – It’s not just about us, it is about maintaining alliance systems which need our nuclear umbrella to be credible. We’ve worked long and hard to keep Japan and South Korea from going nuclear, and that only happens if they firmly believe we would be willing to put Los Angeles at risk to save Seoul and Tokyo.

    Force structure becomes critical to making this work. Sub-based nukes are the best assurance for us of reliable second strike, but their chief virtue capabilities-wise is also a weakness – they are invisible and so cannot signal resolve in crisis situations. Further, they lack some flexibility as a fully-loaded Trident missile has a range of under 5,000 miles, meaning they would need to be relatively close to the target nation to come into play. Bombers provide flexibility and signaling to both our friends and foes of our resolve and interest in situations (think of the increase in Russian bomber patrols over the Arctic, Baltic, and Pacific as well as US deployments of bombers to Europe – nothing quite gets the attention of the press and the population like moving a nuclear-capable bomber around). Finally, land-based ICBMs increase the reliability of the triad because they remain, despite what some dreamers see with missile defense, virtually impossible to knock out of the sky unless you hit them in their boost phase, which would require a large scale and secret pre-emptive strike on the entire land-based force to knock out the capability. This is where redundancy becomes important.

    The biggest challenge with our nukes is our willingness to ‘play the game’ as it were. Schelling described the game well back in the 1960s – when locked up with a rival near a cliff and told that if you can convince your rival to back down you will get a reward, but punished if you back down, the optimum strategy is to dance on the edge of the cliff. Our big problem is we have potential adversaries who we all see willing all the time to dance on the edge of that cliff while we are clearly unwilling to do so because the stakes are so low or because we hope alternative strategies will pay off in the long-run (which in at least one of those cases they likely will). This is the stability-instability paradox at work, the more stable we are strategically due to nukes, the more likely major players are to fight at lower levels of conflict knowing direct standoffs between great powers will be avoided (Jervis, no war monger, actually suggested the answer to this problem was to make the road to nuclear war a slippery slope with tactical nukes embedded at lower levels, effectively taking the risk of escalation out of the hands of policymakers and thus making any scenario too scary to engage in what might be seen as aggression). In a way, nukes have spoiled us as we just take for granted that no wars will be fought between major powers and thus COIN-type wars is what we really need to worry about, but the truth is we only really fight COIN wars because we have invested so much in seeing that big wars never happen. Deterrence is an ugly and dangerous game, but it is a high-risk, very-high-reward scenario. Compare $1T over 30 years to the costs of just the Iraq and Afghan wars, and then think about what the cost would be of a major theater war with a near-peer.

    It’s not about destroying the world in order to save it; the scale of international conflicts were pushing the envelope of destroying the world even without nukes. It’s about unambiguously facing the reality of what such a war would mean to prevent that war from ever happening in the first place.


    1. Ah, yes: the nuclear umbrella. More like the thermonuclear mushroom cloud of utter devastation. Not sure I want to live under that “umbrella.”

      If any country has shown it’s willing to use nukes, it’s the USA, since we’re the only country to have used nukes — at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Do we really need to keep posturing about our willingness to kill?

      The point is this. Continuing to spend billions, and perhaps over time a trillion, on nuclear overkill to out-psych potential opponents is colossal folly. Opponents are more likely to respond by enlarging their own nuclear arsenals, and it’s off to the arms races again. Else they’ll seek other forms of WMD for their own deterrence purposes.

      De-escalation is the answer. Downsizing our nuclear arsenals makes utter sense. Else (to paraphrase Eisenhower) humanity will be hanging on a cross irradiated by nuclear destruction.

      I truly hope that’s not the apocalypse that so many conservative Christians are waiting for.


      1. Millions of people all around the world have desired the security of our nuclear umbrella for decades. And just because we showed a willingness to use them once, when we were the only country that had them, doesn’t mean people automatically know we’d use them again, and not necessarily on their behalf either.

        1. Nukes are much harder to get than many think. Iran has been trying it for 40 years, and they are still well short. India and Pakistan were able (probably with some assistance/theft) to get their hands on rudimentary bombs, and Israel probably has a few, but proliferation has been slow and norms built by the international community have proven quite resilient in thwarting nascent programs and even in swaying some states to move toward abolition, so long as their defenses were assured.

        2. The essence of the nuclear revolution means there is little cause to engage in an arms race. The US is in position to downsize its force, but I wouldn’t want to go to fewer than about 500 deployed warheads, and I would want to ensure those are top-of-the-line. I largely disagree with Kroenig’s conclusions that stockpile size still matters for nuclear crises, I still say it is resolve though a country’s phase in developing their program may be a key indicator of resolve. China’s program is to this point purely defensive and thus has relied on a strategy of ‘minimal deterrence,’ meaning 300 total warheads and zero on alert status they view as sufficient to deter an adversary; but they have no alliance structure to deal with.

        3. Yes, we do need to keep posturing. Japan doesn’t believe in us and as a result are looking at reinterpreting their constitution to allow for a military force again. Japan and Korea have huge historic rifts, and the last thing we need in our W. Pacific strategy is to have to worry about even a conventional arms race between those two states.

        Speaking of which, why would doing away with nukes alleviate arms race pressure? Arms races tend to occur when security dilemmas are exasperated by countries seeking to build up their own defenses. If we task our allies with building up their defenses, that will inherently lead to conventional arms races and potentially conflicts throughout the world. You don’t want to live under the nuclear umbrella – what about our allies in the Baltic states? In Poland? Ukraine and Georgia were practically begging to be put under that umbrella (we didn’t for good cause, but they still wanted it). And, if conventional weapons can be just as potent for security reasons as nuclear weapons, why not have nuclear weapons too? That whole argument seems counterproductive.


  2. There certainly is an historical argument to be had with regard to the usefulness of the development and deployment of nuclear weapons. That argument, with all of it’s components and transmutations, continues into the present, As Bill rightly & strongly suggests, the extant nuclear weapon superstructure is “a relic of the Cold War.”. That this superstructure “may have made some sense” (and I would say MAY and SOME) in an earlier stage is an issue of some concession, but insofar as the question relates to present concerns:
    I think, too, that resources devoted to the present superstructure could be scaled-back and put to better use, that it “makes no strategic or financial ( or moral) sense today.” Also, the potential scale of catastrophe associated with even a “limited” real exchange of powerful radioactive weaponry (whether accidental or otherwise) can not be stressed enough.

    In response to Michael’s posts:
    Your first point is that nuclear weapons are necessary for their “psychological effect”. The purpose, it would seem, is to “deter,” to make the other guy think twice. So we don’t have “a large-scale conventional attack,” and “because we have invested so much in seeing that big wars never happen”. You stress the kind of bravado “resolve” associated with a warring mentality.
    You go on to defend the redundancy of the superstructure. Have you considered that a scenario in which the redundancy of the superstructure was actually put into play would entail consequences which make your assertion of “where redundancy becomes important” quite ironic? I think the optimum strategy in “the game” would be to determine that the reward for convincing your rival to back down would be to then be allowed to back down yourself without punishment. Then you could both be at peace away from cliff”s edge.
    Let’s get real about arms dealing and posturing. Yes, deterrence is an ugly and dangerous game. If the idea is to prevent “big wars,” then congratulations, I can’ t prove that nuclear posturing doesn’t prevent something. It certainly hasn’t prevented large expenditures of blood and treasure.


    1. The last two sentences make more sense, and convey my meaning, if editing to read: I can’t prove that nuclear posturing doesn’t prevent “big wars,” rather than the ambiguous “something”


    2. It’s not a warring mentality, it’s all about stopping wars from happening. Wars occur when adversaries underestimate the costs of war and/or think they have developed a novel way to reach a quick victory owing to imperfect information (see John Mearsheimer’s Conventional Deterrence ( or James Fearon’s paper Rationalist Explanations for War ( The basis of deterrence theory is to unambiguously raise the cost of war and unambiguously assure the potential adversary of both the ability and will to use the weapons to prevent them from ever reaching the decision that initiating conflict is a good idea. Reintroduce lots of ambiguity into the scenario, or make it clear that use of certain types of force are off the table, and the likelihood of war dramatically increases.

      I’d like to live in a world where such defenses weren’t necessary, but Man is still pretty far removed from that world.


  3. What is absent from this discussion is the very simple fact that one nation, the USA has used this “deterrence”, not to bring peace to the world but to bring aggrandizement, violence, and chaos to the world.

    Forget the think tanks whose job it is to offer fancy cover for our bullying and look at what reality has become. The Middle East in absolute dangerous chaos, Central Asia seething, eastern Europe on the edge of who knows what.

    That’s what “logical deterrence’ has brought us, not peace.

    Peace on earth, good will toward men. Have a happy Christmas!


    1. That’s in no way what is happening.

      Deterrence, compellence, and military adventurism are three very different things. The third is what is responsible for the current situation, and has in fact been undermining the prior two. Deterrence is the ability to stop a potential adversary from changing their actions through threat of violence, compellance is forcing your adversary to change through force of violence, and what I am defining here as miltiary adventurism is the attempt to use military violence to force change upon an adversary. This adventurism occurred due to a deterrence failure because we failed to see how a blitzkreig strategy sounds appealing but pretty much never works as intended (again, read Mearsheimer), thus leading to high costs and eventually self-destruction. This adventurism has led us to become overextended, which in turn has undercut our deterrence because we are perceived to lack the will to employ force, both conventional and nuclear not just nuclear, to maintain the status quo, leaving perceived security vacuums around the world.

      Deterrence is a means of maintaining US security WITHOUT using violence, the adventurism of neoconservatism is the antithesis of deterrence. Feel free to critique the current US security posture, but at least talk about the right things.


  4. Michael. the hubris of owning and maintaining the most powerful nuclear arsenal and having conned and bullied the world bodies into deterring others led to the military adventurism. Greed and the lust for power has no limit. Always look for ‘first’ causes. Aristotle. That is what Col. Astore’s article is about. In essence you seem to be agreeing with this thesis but “back dooring” it.


    1. Not really. Nukes are part of the problem because the unipolar moment left us with a lot of power and no concrete visions of what to do with it, but the answer to that issue is not to do away with nukes. We moved essentially from deterrence in the Cold War, to Compellence with limited interventions in the 1990s, to military adventurism in the 2000s, but in the meantime our nuclear force was in fact rotting away with declining morale, disinterest from the service, and a number of other issues. This reality of the status of the forces today is a main reason why I reject that nuclear dominance led to military adventurism, as nuclear coercion has not been part of our international strategy since the 1990s, and frankly our policymakers today really have no idea how to use nuclear coercion the way Schelling outlined it.

      What you describe is referred to in the IR world as ‘offensive realism’ – the belief that states are power-maximizers and that no level of power is sufficient, leading inevitably to overextension followed by collapse. I reject that because there are numerous examples of states restraining themselves from expanding their own power, and of states assenting to relative decline in various international orders. The US’s challenge is not our nuclear arsenal, but a lack of a clearly defined purpose for its overall foreign policy. This exists in both the policy and the military domain, and at all levels of warfare. I believe both the military and policy world need to re-learn the art of deterrence and the real challenges involved (the Cold War was really hard – I shake my head anytime I hear someone suggest GWOT is such a challenge and they wish we could go back to the good old days of bipolarity), and focus on the art of deterrence again and the vital role it plays into defense policy, rather than throwing our forces around as we have done for the past decade undercutting our capabilities.


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