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Pentagon Aims to Retain Aging Nuclear "Triad"

A U.S. B-52 bomber drops conventional weapons in an undated photo. The Obama administration’s fiscal 2013 Pentagon budget proposal supports retaining the country’s “triad” of land-, air- and sea-based nuclear delivery vehicles (AP Photo/U.S. Defense Department). A U.S. B-52 bomber drops conventional weapons in an undated photo. The Obama administration’s fiscal 2013 Pentagon budget proposal supports retaining the country’s “triad” of land-, air- and sea-based nuclear delivery vehicles (AP Photo/U.S. Defense Department).

The U.S. Defense Department's fiscal 2013 budget request supports retaining the nation's "triad" of aging silo-, aircraft- and submarine-based nuclear-weapon delivery systems, despite President Obama's pledge earlier this month to "get rid of outdated Cold War-era systems" as the country ends its roles in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Associated Press reported on Sunday (see GSN, Jan. 27).

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta last week offered an early look at the Pentagon's upcoming spending request for the budget  year that begins on Oct. 1. A planned two-year delay in preparing a new generation of ballistic-missile submarines is the only change to U.S. nuclear weapons policy in the proposal. Constructing the fleet of replacement vessels would require $350 billion, according to the Arms Control Association, and the vessels would remain in service for five decades.

A pending Obama administration assessment of the necessary quantity of nuclear weapons for meeting U.S. deterrent requirements could pave the way for changes to the nation's atomic forces (see GSN, Jan. 24).  

A number of arms reduction advocates have said the three-pronged delivery scheme is unnecessarily expensive, and certain experts have recommended eliminating the U.S. nuclear bomber fleet or another single leg of the complex to help pave the way for additional weapon cuts.

The nation's existing nuclear weapons force is "not in keeping with the modern world," said Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.). Atomic armaments are useless in staving off dangers such as violent extremism from abroad, according to Levin and other legislators of a similar mindset.

The United States today has roughly 5,000 nuclear warheads that could be deployed on B-52 and B-2 strategic bomber aircraft, ICBMs and ballistic-missile submarines. The country had roughly twice as many launch-available warheads 10 years ago.

The U.S.-Russian New START accord requires each nation by 2018 to reduce their arsenals of deployed strategic nuclear weapons to 1,550 warheads and 700 delivery systems.

The Air Force oversees the land- and air-based systems and recommends keeping the entire triad, which some observers said was responsible for preventing a nuclear exchange in the nation's decades-long standoff with the Soviet Union.

"It remains our conviction that as you go down (in numbers of nuclear weapons), the triad actually becomes more important," Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz said on Friday. "The diversity, the variety, the attributes associated with each leg of the triad reinforce each other to a greater degree."

It is notable that President Obama's fiscal 2013 defense spending proposal does not include significant measures for following through on his stated intention to pursue additional nuclear arms reductions, Laicie Olson, a senior policy analyst with the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation, told AP on Friday.

"All of these things are sticking around," Olson said. Retaining the aging systems "actually seems like the opposite of what the president set out to do," the expert added.

Separately, talks are under way between Washington and other NATO governments on the possible removal of U.S. tactical nuclear armaments placed in European countries amid tensions with the Soviet Union (see GSN, Jan. 17). Also under consideration are preparations for potential further U.S.-Russian nuclear reduction discussions (Robert Burns, Associated Press/Google News, Jan. 29).

Clarification: An earlier version of this article should have made clear that $350 billion is an estimated cost for producing the entire fleet of next-generation U.S. ballistic missile submarines.

Note to our Readers

GSN ceased publication on July 31, 2014. Its articles and daily issues will remain archived and available on NTI’s website.

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