Toward a Modernized Nuclear Triad: Dangerously Expensive or Vital to Deterrence?

U.S. global strike command tests ICBM, bomber capabilities – the nuclear missile leg of the nuclear missile triad (Feb 25, 2015)

By Natasha Bajema

In a stunning series of revelations, researchers at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies and the Federation of American Scientists used commercial satellite imagery to disclose China’s efforts to build at least 200 new nuclear silos in the desert near the cities of Yumen and Hami. Once completed, this expansion could more than double the Chinese arsenal by adding several hundred nuclear weapons, depending on the number of silos outfitted with missiles and the number of warheads deployed on each intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). Even so, China’s nuclear stockpile would still not come close to the United States with its estimated total stockpile of 3,800 warheads, of which about 1,750 are deployed. Along with this development, in recent years China has expanded its ballistic submarine fleet and taken significant steps toward achieving a nuclear triad much like that of the United States and Russia, which are both undergoing major modernization programs.

Within the U.S., experts continue to debate modernizing all three legs of the nuclear triad. In a recent op-ed, Bill Perry (former US secretary of defense), Jerry Brown (former governor of California, and John Garamendi (US Representative for California’s 3rd Congressional District) warn of a dangerous arms race and the looming threat of new technologies, such as the use of cyber weapons against early warning satellites. Under its current modernization plans, the U.S. government will not only end up spending more than US $1.7 trillion over the next thirty years, according to these experts, it will send signals of domination rather than deterrence to other countries.

Within the nuclear triad, ICBMs tend to receive the most scrutiny because of their perceived disadvantages relative to bombers and submarines. Bombers and submarines can be quickly and easily moved out of harm’s way by rapid dispersal and/or stealth design, but silo-based ICBMs are vulnerable to immediate destruction in any first strike on the United States. Though their locations are hardened and dispersed across the American heartland, their locations are well-known. Their launch facilities would be seriously damaged by a direct nuclear hit. Unlike bombers and forward-deployed submarines (but not their bombs/missiles), ICBMs cannot be called back after they are launched. 

In the event that early-warning satellites and radars detect a nuclear attack, the U.S. President would face intense pressure to launch a retaliatory strike in less than thirty minutes. Any longer delay and U.S. ICBMs would likely be destroyed—a situation often referred to as the “use-or-lose” problem. Many experts suggest that the pressures to launch ICBMs would be significant in the event of a nuclear attack due to their perceived vulnerability. 

However, In a recent interview, Dr. Brad Roberts, Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear and Missile Defense Policy, disagreed, arguing that this problem “went away with the demise of the Soviet threat of a bolt-from-the-blue massive preemptive strike. Accordingly, the U.S. no longer has a launch-under-attack policy and prizes surety over speed in nuclear command and control.” 

Marina Favaro, a Research Fellow at the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy (IFSH) at the University of Hamburg, warns in a new report that in a nuclear crisis, several new technologies have the potential to increase the risks of hasty, badlyinformed decisions by distorting the information landscape, compressing decision timeframes, and altering the context in which nuclear weapons might be used. Technologies such as social media, deep fakes, cyber weapons, machine learning, commercial satellites, and autonomous systems, are producing increased risk of “uncertainty, miscalculation, and escalation in a nuclear crisis.”

For example, early-warning satellites, a longstanding and critical component of nuclear command and control, are increasingly at risk from a variety of threats, including cyber weapons, jamming technologies, and even the proliferation of space junk. According to Favaro: 

“…any jamming or cyber technology capable of interfering, hoodwinking, blinding, or confusing such satellites would prevent nuclear decision-makers from understanding what is happening and produce an even thicker fog of war. With a thirty-minute delivery window for ICBMs, decision-makers may be forced to assume that spoofed signals are real since they do not have time to fact check.”

In reality, the window might not even be that long. Fully autonomous systems operate at machine speed, so they may compress timeframes for decision-making to mere seconds in a nuclear crisis. Favaro warns that “even if the U.S. were to keep humans in or on the loop of its autonomous systems, its adversaries may choose to exploit the strategic advantage of speed, putting the U.S. at a disadvantage.” In the case of ICBMs, especially, a nuclear crisis driven by machine speed might increase incentives for acting first, exacerbating the risk of nuclear war.

Although new technologies make situations for nuclear forces more complex, Roberts says that “nuclear decision-makers have faced these challenges for decades and will continue to adapt their practices to a changing technology environment.” In an email interview conducted for this article, he also argues that some new technologies may actually enhance the role of ICBMs within the nuclear triad: 

“The revolution in sensors, data processing, and communications has made the surface of the earth and the space above it fully transparent and seems destined to render the seas transparent, sooner or later. This will put ballistic missile submarines at growing risk and thus also the assured retaliation they currently promise.”

It also seems that the disclosure of China’s silo construction activities through commercial satellite imagery represents the tip of the game-changing iceberg for open source intelligence. In a recent talk, Rose Gottemoeller, former deputy secretary general of NATO, expressed concerns about the coming vulnerability of nuclear-armed submarines from 24/7 satellite coverage and AI-enabled analysis of subtle shifts in the ocean surface and temperature. Since ballistic missile submarines have long benefited from stealth, they have provided countries with an ability to retaliate even after a devastating first strike. According to Gottemoeller, greater transparency of the oceans may overturn “a vital insurance policy and a cornerstone of strategic stability.” A loss, or even diminution, of a powerful second-strike option would increase mutual vulnerability among nuclear powers, increasing incentives to act first. Such pressure to act could lead to the premature launch of ICBMs in a nuclear crisis.

Nuclear deterrence experts may wish to re-examine long-standing assumptions about the nuclear triad in light of the potential impact of new technologies. The examples of France relying upon a nuclear dyad (nuclear-armed bombers and submarines) and the U.K. solely upon a single leg of nuclear-armed submarines, along with the impact of new technologies explored above, beg two questions. Will ICBMs experience more negative effects from new technologies than the other legs of the triad? And if so, should the U.S. still proceed with  modernizing them? At the very least, more thinking about the role of nuclear forces in the 21st century is urgently needed.

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