Brig. Gen. Glenn T. Harris/U.S. Air Force and Maj. John Yanikov/U.S. Army, U.S. Strategic Command
There is a reason that nuclear deterrence remains the most important mission within the United States military. U.S. Navy Adm. Charles Richard, former commander of U.S. Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM), the command in charge of deterring strategic attacks and providing a decisive response should deterrence fail, explained: “Every operational plan in the Department of Defense (DOD), and every other capability we have, rests on an assumption that strategic deterrence will hold. And if strategic deterrence, and in particular nuclear deterrence, doesn’t hold, none of our other plans and no other capability that we have, is going to work as designed.”
To ensure nuclear deterrence remains credible as the bedrock of U.S. national security, it must undergo critical modernization of its traditional triad weapons systems — ground, sea and air platforms that can launch nuclear weapons. In addition, evolving from the conventional operational approach to deterrence to a more robust concept of integrated deterrence will better help the U.S. maintain its credible nuclear capability for the foreseeable future and ensure stability across the globe. Under this concept, the capabilities of the nuclear triad are tied to and incorporated with other strategic capabilities such as cyber, space and missile defense, and even civilian academia, industry and allies,
Nuclear deterrence results from the shared understanding among competitors that each has a ready and reliable ability to respond in kind to a nuclear attack. The key traditional component to maintaining nuclear deterrence is fielding viable weapons systems. Today’s U.S. nuclear triad consists of 14 ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) armed with submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), 400 land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and 60 nuclear-capable heavy bomber aircraft. Collectively, the U.S. triad seeks to ensure that no adversary believes it could launch a strategic attack, under any circumstance, that eliminates the U.S. ability to respond and inflict unacceptable damage. To this end, each leg of the triad provides unique and complementary attributes, making U.S. strategic forces responsive, survivable and flexible.
Minuteman III ICBMs make up the most responsive leg of the nuclear triad. Since 1959, Minuteman missiles have remained on around-the-clock alert, providing a quick-to-respond component of America’s strategic deterrence program. The ICBMs are spread among 400 hardened, underground silos — with an additional 50 silos kept in “warm” status — assigned to multiple military bases, presenting a targeting problem for any adversary. The hardened and dispersed nature of U.S. ICBMs requires an adversary to commit to a massive attack against the U.S. homeland to have a chance of disabling all ICBMs, thus enhancing deterrence.
The Minuteman III arsenal capitalizes on a routine “remove and replace” update approach that has allowed it to achieve a 100% alert rate since it was first deployed. Secure communication systems provide the U.S. president and secretary of defense with highly reliable, virtually instantaneous direct contact with each launch crew. Launch crews in control centers perform continuous alerts with all remote missile launch sites. Should command capability be lost between a launch control center and a remote missile launch facility, specially configured E-6B airborne launch control center aircraft would automatically assume command and control of the isolated missile(s). Airborne missile combat crews would execute the president’s orders, making the land-based ICBM leg of the triad also survivable.
Stealth and precision
The sea-based leg of the nuclear triad, in which the Ohio-class SSBNs serve as undetectable launch platforms, is the most survivable. The SSBNs are designed for stealth, extended patrols and the precise delivery of nuclear warheads. On average, the submarines spend 80 days at sea, followed by 35 days in port for maintenance. Each submarine has two crews, Blue and Gold, which alternate patrols. This maximizes the submarine’s strategic availability, reduces the number of submarines required to meet strategic requirements and allows for optimal crew training, readiness and morale. Each SSBN carries up to 24 SLBMs with multiple, independently targeted warheads. The Trident II D5 missiles, which have a 7,000-kilometer range, allow the U.S. to place any adversary’s hardened and valued assets at risk. SSBNs are highly mobile and can be moved to a variety of launch points to avoid overflight concerns, providing additional assurance to allies and increasing operational flexibility.
Bombers are the most flexible leg of the U.S. nuclear triad. Consisting of B-52H Stratofortress and B-2A Spirit aircraft, the air platform provides nuclear strike capability quickly anywhere on the globe while evading most adversaries’ advanced defenses. U.S. bombers have nearly unlimited range, given their midair refueling capability and, when combined with the range of their air-launched cruise missiles (ALCMs), can threaten a high percentage of targets within an adversary’s territory. They can reach any potential target worldwide from their U.S. bases, or be forward deployed during peacetime, crisis or conflict — a tangible reminder to potential adversaries of U.S. commitments to defend the security of its allies and partners.
Both types of bomber can carry nuclear and conventional weapons tailored to the mission. The B-52 can drop or launch the widest array of weapons in the U.S. arsenal, including gravity and cluster bombs, precision-guided missiles, and joint direct attack munitions. The B-2 provides unmatched penetration flexibility. Its stealth characteristics give it the unique ability to infiltrate an enemy’s most sophisticated defenses and threaten its most heavily defended targets. The bombers can also be loaded and unloaded under compressed timelines, giving national leadership the ability to call off a strike after aircraft takeoff.
The ultimate foundation
Combined, these nuclear forces are the ultimate foundation of U.S. national security. The U.S. government’s commitment to modernize the nuclear triad further illustrates this. Although each weapons system receives regular and routine updates to meet changing technologies and evolving mission requirements, all three legs must be modernized to ensure they retain their deterrent capability. This means existing platforms will be replaced with new weapons systems or completely overhauled and equipped with the latest technology. Such recapitalization of the nuclear force is underway and over the next 20 years will comprise, at its highest point, up to an estimated 3.7% of the DOD budget.
Previous and ongoing updates to the Minuteman III have expanded the missile’s targeting options, while improving accuracy and survivability. However, the U.S. Air Force has determined that continuing to extend the Minuteman III’s life cycle would cost about the same as a replacement ICBM. In addition, a new ICBM would better meet future requirements while lowering sustainment costs over its life cycle. Therefore, the DOD has declared the future of the ICBM to be the Sentinel program.
The Sentinel program will feature a modular architecture that can incorporate emerging technologies to adapt to rapidly evolving threat environments. This will lower costs and help the program operate well into the 2070s. The program will also modernize launch facilities, improve command and control, and increase safety and security, with upgrades beginning in 2029.
The sea-based leg of the U.S. nuclear triad is also scheduled to benefit from updated and new weapons systems. After serving longer than any other U.S. nuclear-powered submarine, the 14 Ohio-class SSBNs will be replaced by at least 12 Columbia-class SSBNs. The project will bring advances in navigation, maneuverability, command and control, and quieting technologies. The Columbia-class, expected to be the stealthiest submarine to date, will feature a nuclear reactor that does not require midlife refueling, reducing operational costs while still meeting mission requirements.
The U.S. Columbia-class and the United Kingdom’s Dreadnought-class submarines will carry the current Trident II D5 SLBM, providing the allies with greater interoperability and significant cost savings by eliminating the need for different missile compartment designs. The Columbia-class SSBNs, which will initially carry 16 Trident II D5 SLBMs, are designed to operate into the 2080s. The Trident II D5 SLBMs will operate into the 2040s.
Meanwhile, the air-based leg of the U.S. nuclear triad is replacing one type of bomber and updating the other. The B-52, originally deployed in 1961, has undergone life extensions and upgrades and is slated to remain in service beyond 2040. The B-2 will be supplemented in the mid-2020s and eventually replaced by the B-21 Raider, which the U.S. Air Force introduced in late 2022. The B-21 is a next-generation, stealth bomber designed to be long-range, highly survivable, and capable of carrying conventional and nuclear ordnance. With a planned minimum inventory of 100 aircraft, the B-21 will join the nation’s nuclear triad as a flexible deterrent option.
Additionally, to support the triad’s air-based leg, the AGM-86B ALCM, which first deployed in 1982 and was designed to defend against Soviet threats, will be replaced by the long-range standoff missile. The stealth cruise missile will have enhanced accuracy, range and reliability over previous generations of ALCMs, increasing the probability of mission success while decreasing risk to the aircrew.
The U.S. nuclear triad’s effectiveness will not only be determined by the modernization of its weapons systems, but also by the modernization of a secure nuclear command, control and communications (NC3) system. NC3 is integral to ensuring that nuclear weapons are available for instant, deliberate use, but never used mistakenly. The NC3 system performs five crucial functions: detection, warning and attack characterization; adaptive nuclear planning; decision-making conferencing; receiving presidential orders; and enabling force management. The system includes terrestrial and space-based sensors that monitor the globe for threats, and a communications architecture that connects the nation’s decision-makers to its nuclear forces under any conditions.
To complement the nuclear triad’s new capabilities, the NC3 system is being upgraded to NC3 Next, which Richard, the former USSTRATCOM commander, described as a rolling initiative of improvements to all aspects of the complex network. Some NC3 platforms were developed in the 1980s and, since then, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Russia have developed capabilities that could threaten the legacy system. NC3 Next will feature more than 200 platforms, from radios and terminals embedded in about 60 systems to satellites used to send encrypted strategic communications to nuclear submarines, as well as the E-6B Airborne Command Post or the E-4B National Airborne Operations Center aircraft, known as the “Doomsday plane,” that would assume command should ground-based systems be neutralized.
One key node of the system has already been modernized. In 2019, USSTRATCOM opened its Command and Control Facility (C2F) at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska. As the heart of the nation’s nuclear command, the facility was the first step in modernizing the entire nuclear enterprise and will support the modernization of all other strategic assets, such as the nuclear triad and NC3.
The U.S. $1.4 billion, 85,100-square-meter facility is manned by over 3,000 personnel and has more than 1,000 kilometers of information technology cable to support the long-term viability and credibility of the nation’s strategic deterrent force. The C2F is designed to evolve along with emerging threats and capabilities, enabling the U.S. to adapt and remain flexible far into the future.
The U.S.’s investment in modernizing its strategic weapons systems seeks to maintain balance, given the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) and Russia’s high levels of defense spending to modernize their conventional and nuclear forces. Nuclear weapons are becoming a more important aspect of Chinese military strategy and remain a foundational aspect of Russia’s. The CCP, according to Richard, is undergoing a “nuclear breakout” — on track to double, if not triple, its nuclear warheads by 2030 while also improving the capability and capacity of its missile defense system. Russia’s defense ministry has said that 90% of its strategic nuclear forces have been modernized in recent years.
Although Russia and the CCP each have nuclear triads, “a nation’s nuclear stockpile is a crude measure of its overall capability,” Richard cautioned. “We must consider the delivery system, accuracy, range, readiness, training, concept of operations and many other things to fully understand what a nation is capable of doing. Yes … we have a larger stockpile than China does right now. But two-thirds of what we have is operationally unavailable to me due to treaty constraints. And I have to deter Russia and others, including outliers like North Korea, with what we have, all at the same time.” For that reason, any comparison to the bipolar Cold War, where the U.S. was in nuclear parity with only one peer nation, is lacking. Today’s strategic environment is characterized by two capable peers that want to change the world order, and the U.S. with its allies seeking to defend that rules-based order. The PRC and Russia can unilaterally escalate a conflict to any level of hostility, in any domain, in any geographic location, at any time, according to Richard.
Therefore, it is imperative to view deterrence as more than the modernization of the nuclear triad weapons systems and NC3. Moreover, competitor nations continue to develop capabilities that defy traditional domains and boundaries. An enhanced and expanded view of deterrence looks across all domains, including integrated missile defense (IMD), space and cyber, as well as understanding how partnerships, such as those with allies or with a nation’s intellectual and industrial base, are needed to support future capabilities. This integrated deterrence approach provides the inherent flexibility needed to plan and execute tailored strategies for all adversaries.
Integrating missile defense into the nuclear triad, NC3 Next and national nuclear policy increases capabilities and options, and hopefully prevents any conflict from becoming nuclear. IMD is an essential, continuous mission, whether in peacetime, crisis or conflict, helping protect territory, populations and forces against air and missile attacks. The U.S. currently fields three theater-level missile defense systems to target incoming short-, medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles in defense of the homeland and regional areas. These are the land-based Patriot Advanced Capability (PAC-3) and THAAD systems, as well as the sea-based Aegis system, although Aegis Ashore can also be deployed on land. Each system targets a rocket or missile in its terminal phase — after a warhead reenters the atmosphere — using radar and satellite systems to detect, classify and track the threat.
When deployed appropriately, IMD systems provide a range of options while denying an adversary the ability to use a missile attack to achieve its aims. To that end, missile defense establishes a more credible deterrence by encouraging restraint of adversaries. In addition, a robust and reliable missile defense program imposes costs on competitors by forcing them to spend more resources on their missile arsenals.
The PRC and Russia are developing advanced platforms to challenge current terrestrial-based radar architecture, such as the Russian dual-use Zircon and Chinese hypersonic glide vehicles. To address potential imbalances in capabilities, the U.S. is developing the Next-Generation Interceptor, hypersonic glide interceptors, and a high-energy laser and other directed-energy technology to complement existing missile defense systems and counter future missile threats.
Early warning of advanced missiles of all types also must be complemented by global planning to achieve strategic, integrated deterrence. Competitors’ systems are not designed with regard for boundaries, geographic or operational. In addition to a warning, tracking and neutralizing system, the U.S. will need an alternative posture to account for instances where there is a lack of warning. The ability to command and control missile defense forces underpins their usefulness in deterrence. NC3 Next and Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2) systems are key parts of integrating missile defense and making it more effective for deterrence. JADC2 will provide a means of more quickly sharing information across the joint force, ensuring the best sensors and shooters are available to counter threats to nuclear and conventional forces. The integration of command and control of missile defense systems can help the U.S. deter adversary weapons, such as low-yield nuclear weapons, without needing to match a competitor system for system.
Rethinking operational deterrence
The nuclear triad, NC3 and IMD are linked as key elements of deterrence. In today’s multidomain environment, integration also happens across space, cyber and gray zones, defined as competitive interactions among state and nonstate actors that fall between traditional war and peace. This complexity means the U.S. military will need to increasingly integrate academic and industry communities to meet current and future deterrence challenges. While nuclear threats differ from those of the past, the benefit of investing in intellectual capacity still applies. In the U.S., for example, the Rand Corp. think tank was created to study the Cold War and explore deterrence theory. Some of that era’s greatest theorists, such as Thomas Schelling and Herman Kahn, ventured “outside the box” of traditional military and government approaches to develop the initial nuclear deterrence theories that served the world well for decades.
USSTRATCOM is rethinking operational deterrence theory to include a more comprehensive integrated deterrence philosophy. By changing how deterrence is viewed fundamentally, a better understanding can be gained about how it still applies in today’s environment, and how it will help to inform strategies when executing plans in support of a common, comprehensive defense. Integrated deterrence philosophy prioritizes the incorporation of U.S. allies and partners into all aspects of collective deterrence.
Allied and partner interoperability preserves freedom of action, increases knowledge and options, and enables effective cooperative defense. Efforts to bolster strategic relationships with partners continue through war games such as Nimble Titan. Twenty-four countries and three international organizations participate in the exercise, which focuses on multinational integration aimed at enhancing interoperability and defense concepts. The collaboration reinforces that the U.S. and its allies and partners are prepared against strategic attack through these integrated deterrence systems. A strong, integrated nuclear deterrent program also contributes to U.S. nonproliferation goals by limiting the incentive for allies and partners to develop nuclear weapons.
Multilateral exercises also help deter North Korea, the PRC, Russia and others from believing they can benefit from using nuclear weapons or threatening their use. In this way, even with the scale and intensity of changes to the strategic environment, integrated deterrence can help keep the world stable and at peace. With each modernization and advancement in the systems that comprise U.S. and allied integrated deterrence, nuclear competitors and potential competitors should increasingly see the investment as too much to overcome and opt instead for joining the U.S. in reducing prospects for nuclear conflict or miscalculation.
As adversary threats continue to grow, the importance of deterrence endures. However, the U.S. and its allies are now tailoring and evolving nuclear deterrence for the dynamic environment they face. Strategic deterrence requires integration of capabilities across all domains throughout the U.S. military and beyond. Above and beyond the nuclear triad, modernizing NC3 systems and investing in other capabilities, such as IMD, will increase options and enhance deterrence.
For 70 years, deterrence has helped the world avoid a catastrophic nuclear conflict. It continues to underwrite all U.S. military operations and diplomacy across the globe. Integrated deterrence will remain the backstop and foundation of U.S. national security for the foreseeable future.
This article was first published in per Concordiam, Volume 12, Issue 3. Per Concordiam is a publication of U.S. European Command.