In late 2015 American presidential candidate Donald Trump was caught,
during a presidential debate, not knowing the answer to a basic national security question; what is the nuclear triad?. You might laugh, but before you do, ask yourself if YOU know what the nuclear triad is. While Donald Trump at a minimum was badly served by his campaign staff, who should have given him a basic understanding of this vital feature of our national defense, it might be worth reviewing this topic – as it is one huge reason why the Cold War never went hot, and it keeps America secure today.
The nuclear triad consists of the intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), and strategic bombers. These three systems work together to ensure that the United States can deter any attack from another nuclear-armed state by ensuring that the retaliation would be devastating.
The American ICBM force consists of 500 LGM-30 Minuteman III ballistic missiles. These missiles first entered service in 1970, replacing earlier versions of the Minuteman. They initially held three warheads until a 1992 agreement resulted in the three warheads being downgraded to one. Currently, these missiles, are at the LGM-30G standard, and each holds a single W87 warhead, with a 300 kiloton yield – that’s equivalent to 300,000 tons of TNT. The LGM-30Gs can hit targets 13,000 kilometers away. A more modern ICBM, the LGM-118 Peacekeeper, also known as the MX, was retired in 2005 after being negotiated away in the START II Treaty. The ICBMs might not be able to move, and they are hard to hide. But they do provide the option of an immediate and quick response.
For a deterrent that can hide, the United States has its SLBMs, which are based on Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines. Eighteen of these submarines were built, but under the terms of the START II Treaty, four of them were converted to carry up to 154 Tomahawk cruise missiles – as well as being modified to support SEALs. Each of the other fourteen now carry 24 UGM-133 Trident II ballistic missiles, each capable of carrying up to eight 475-kiloton W88 warheads. The UGM-133 can reach targets about 10,000 kilometers away. While the Ohio-class submarines are probably the most secure portion of the nuclear triad (they can hide just about anywhere in the ocean and still hit their targets), they have a longer response time. This is because only VLF radio signals can reach them, and those can take a long time to transmit.
While the two types of ballistic missiles can deliver a devastating response, they are also not very flexible. The ICBMs and SLBMs really only have one type of warhead – and they also cannot be called back. Once the missiles launch, they are going towards their destination – there is no going back. This is where the third leg of the nuclear triad – the strategic bombers – come in.
If you want flexibility, America’s bombers provide it. The United States has three strategic bombers in service: The B-52H, the B-1B, and the B-2A. The B-52, America’s oldest strategic bomber, is eventually be replaced by the new LRSB (Long Range Strike Bomber), but in the meantime it has demonstrated the value of the strategic bomber in its almost six decades of service. The B-1B and B-2A have also proven to be versatile and capable weapons. All these bombers can deliver B61 or B83 gravity bombs, or fire air-launched cruise missiles (either the AGM-86 or the AGM-129) – and that just scratches the surface. The strategic bombers can also deliver a wide variety of conventional weapons as well. But what is also important is that they can be called back before they reach their targets – largely because they are the slowest portion of the nuclear triad.
The fact that the nuclear triad has never had to be used (outside of the use of strategic bombers in conventional roles in Vietnam, Desert Storm, over Kosovo, and during the War on Terror) speaks volumes as to how well it has protected the United States of America. So, perhaps Americans should know more about the nuclear triad – and remember to thank the men and women who helped keep America safe during dangerous times. -- Harold C. Hutchison