Do We Still Need a Nuclear 'Triad'?

For the first time in almost 40 years, the nuclear arsenals of the U.S. and Russia are unregulated by a mutual treaty: START—the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty—expired earlier this month. Envoys from both countries are working on an interim deal to extend START—then the goal will be to craft a new treaty. Negotiating that accord will take at least the remainder of President Obama's term. But already the Air Force worries how a new pact might affect the fate of its storied B-52H and B-2 bombers.

For half a century, America has deployed a "nuclear triad": warheads aboard land-based intercontinental missiles; aboard a fleet of Trident submarines; and aboard the B-52H and B-2 as bombs and cruise missiles. But with Obama and his counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev, committed to negotiating further cuts in their nations' stockpiles, the multibillion-dollar question is whether the triad ought to become a dyad or even a monad, with nuclear weapons mounted on only one or two platforms.

Remarkably, a study just published by the Air Force's main lobbying organization, the Air Force Association, concludes that the nation "should gradually shift to a dyad" of submarines and missiles, phasing out bombers. The reasoning: the nation's bomber fleet is largely antiquated, and the latest-generation plane, the bat-winged B-2 (also known as the stealth bomber), costs about $2 billion apiece. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and other Pentagon officials have indicated that such expensive piloted bombers may no longer be affordable. Rebecca Grant, director of the association's research arm, acknowledges that "the Air Force may find [that argument] hard to accept. Air Force officials haven't wavered from their commitment to the nuclear-bomber force."

The study's conclusions echo what Pentagon sources say are options emerging from two big defense studies underway in the Obama administration. One of those, the Quadrennial Defense Review, is looking for big projects to ax, say three sources familiar with the process who didn't want to be named discussing internal debates. Those preparing the other, the Nuclear Posture Review, are under administration pressure to lower estimates of the minimum nuclear force that Washington could accept, the sources say. Gates, meanwhile, canceled research on a future bomber in April, saying he wanted "a better understanding of the need, the requirement, and the technology." One alternative: bomber drones. Gates told Congress recently he wonders if any future bomber "needs to have a pilot in it."