The supreme military might of the United States is provided by its Strategic Nuclear Forces. This force is based on three kinds of nuclear delivery systems, the so called “Nuclear Triad”. The delivery systems include large ballistic missiles (ICBMs) based in missile silos in the ground, the US Air Forces strategic bombers (like the B-52 and new B-2), and the Navy’s submarine launched ballistic missiles. The three different strategic nuclear deterrents come from a combination of evolving weapons technology and inter-service rivalry. The end result is a lot of costly and obsolete weaponry, and even unnecessary danger to the American homeland.
Let’s first look at how each of the “legs” of the Nuclear Triad came to be. First up is the first that existed, strategic bombers. In World War Two, the US Army Air Corps (predecessor of the current Air Force) used large four engine bombers to flatten every city in Germany and Japan. At the end of the war, they even used such planes to drop the only nuclear weapons ever used in combat on Japan. The creation of a large bomber force was the actual reason for the creation of the Air Force. Immediately after the war, the only viable way to use city killing nuclear weapons was to drop them from bombers, so the Air Force built even bigger bombers to carry bigger bombs at ever increasing ranges. The apex of this development was the B-52, developed in the early 1950s and still in use today.
The next leg came out of the rocket developments pioneered by the Germans during the war. Larger and more sophisticated rockets were developed, not primarily for the space race as is popularly imagined, but to deliver nuclear warheads to distant targets by a means that could not be shot down. These missiles initially were based on very fragile outdoor launch pads, but by the early 1960s the Air Force had missiles in protected underground silos. And we still have such missiles in silos today at Air Bases around the country.
Last developed were submarine launched missiles. This took longer to develop, as missiles we had to develop missiles small enough to get into a submarine with long enough range to hit a distant target, and powerful enough to carry a nuclear warhead. The first of these were deployed in the 1960s, but submarine launched missiles didn’t really have global reach until the development of the Trident missile in the 1970s.
We still spend oodles of defense dollars on each of these parts of the Nuclear Triad. The issue is that two of them are completely obsolete, and are therefore a waste of money. The wasted money should be put into other places where it would actually improve our defenses and deterrent.
The most obviously obsolete part of the triad are nuclear bombers, the latest of which is the B-2, the strategic “stealth” bomber. These cost $2 Billion apiece. The question is, why would you send in a bomber to drop a nuke when you can fire a missile? A bomber can be shot down. A missile can’t. Sure, we still need bombers to drop bombs on bad people like ISIS, but old B-52s do a fine job of this.
Also obsolete are land based ICBMs. The first part of a nuclear war involves trying to destroy the other side’s nuclear weapons. This is made a whole lot easier if you know where they are. And everyone knows where they are. Precisely. It may not even take enemy nuclear warheads to take them out.
Submarine launched nuclear missiles provide the best of everything. No one knows where they are. They are underwater and move around. They don’t make the US more of a target; they make it less of one. And they can’t be shot down like bombers.
What to Do
The United States wastes billions of dollars a year on obsolete nuclear weapons. We don’t need strategic stealth bombers. We don’t even need land based nuclear missiles. We should put nuclear weapons into submarines. And we should put the saved money into defense equipment we actually need.