History Highlights: The Nuclear Triad

By Harold Raugh DLA Public Affairs

The United States’ strategic nuclear arsenal has been based on the “nuclear triad” system since the 1960s. The triad refers to the three categories of nuclear delivery vehicles: land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles and strategic aerial bombers. A major purpose of the nuclear triad is to reduce the possibility that an enemy could destroy all the nation’s nuclear forces in a first-strike attack by retaining a second-strike capability, a viable threat that increases nuclear deterrence. This would in effect make a successful first strike impossible.

The Defense Logistics Agency is fully committed to strengthening and optimizing its support to the multiple supply chains and functions of the nuclear triad, also known as the nuclear enterprise. Moreover, the agency “must be vigilant in our end-to-end process planning, precise in execution and committed to partnering with the military services and U.S. Strategic Command to ensure we maintain and improve our performance while leveraging technology and processes to advance efficiencies,” according to the agency’s strategic plan.

DLA Director Air Force Lt. Gen. Andy Busch said April 14 that while the sustainment for this mission was established 50 years ago, “there is a need for a single, synchronized approach to help the services with this mission set.”

Cold War Era

The United States developed and used the first nuclear weapons at the end of World War II in 1945 and maintained nuclear superiority until the Soviet Union acquired its own nuclear weapons in 1948. An arms race took place in the 1950s, with the U.S. and the Soviet Union each attempting to counter the other by developing vastly more powerful thermonuclear weapons. The U.S. tested its first hydrogen bomb in 1952, and the Soviets tested a similar weapon the following year. Fear that the other nation wanted a nuclear superiority to initiate a conflict, coupled with ideological differences, spurred on the race.

This U.S.-Soviet nuclear arms race resulted in a situation of mutual deterrence in the 1960s. The size and capabilities of the superpowers’ nuclear arsenals, if employed, had the potential to produce mutually assured destruction, which forced restraint on both sides.

This nuclear stalemate also served as the genesis for the U.S. nuclear triad. In addition to permitting each of the U.S. military services to play a role in nuclear deterrence, the three different nuclear basing and delivery modes had complementary strengths and weaknesses. “As noted by Amy W. Woolf in a 2015 Congressional Research Service study on U.S. nuclear forces, “ICBMs eventually had the accuracy and prompt responsiveness needed to attack hardened targets such as Soviet command posts and ICBM silos, [and] SLBMs had the survivability needed to complicate Soviet efforts to launch a disarming first strike and to retaliate if such an attack were attempted.” The third component of the nuclear triad, strategic bombers, “could be dispersed quickly and launched to enhance their survivability, and they could be recalled to their bases if a crisis did not escalate into conflict.”

The number of nuclear delivery vehicles – ICBMs, SLBMs and nuclear-capable bombers – in the U.S. force structure, according to unclassified estimates compiled by Woolf, grew steadily through the mid-1960s, peaking at 2,268 in 1967. Between 1,875 and 2,200 ICBMs, SLBMs and heavy bombers were generally maintained through 1990. The number of warheads remained steady before peaking at 13,600 in 1987.

Post-Cold War Era

After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and end of the Cold War, the U.S. and Soviet Union signed the first Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty in 1991. In response to this treaty, which limited the U.S. to 6,000 warheads, the U.S. began reducing and modernizing its nuclear arsenal.

As a result of the Nuclear Posture Review, which took place amid advancing technology, nuclear treaty requirements and an evolving adversary, a new nuclear triad concept was adopted in 2002. While retaining its focus on the original nuclear triad, the new policy, according to political scientists Joan Johnson-Freese and Thomas M. Nichols, moved “U.S. nuclear forces to a so-called ‘capabilities-based’ posture to deal with multiple aggressors across a spectrum of contingencies.” It included special operations forces, unmanned vehicles and cyber-competence, enhancing capability, flexibility and responsiveness. 

Sustaining the Nuclear Enterprise and Nuclear Triad

Recent decisive actions, according to Woolf, have been taken to reinvigorate and further strengthen the Air Force’s portion of the nuclear enterprise. At the same time, amid budgetary constraints, aging delivery systems and questions about reducing warheads and missiles, initiatives have been proposed to enhance the operation, maintenance and modernization of nuclear weapons and delivery systems.

Logistical support and parts availability, including ordering, product support and depot maintenance, drive operations that are critical to sustaining the nuclear enterprise. Through the recently-established Nuclear Enterprise Support Office, DLA will provide the synchronization, precise planning and responsive logistical support needed to effectively maintain America’s nuclear deterrent force, the nuclear triad.