The Nuclear Triad

Fran Tew
November 24, 2016

Submitted as coursework for PH240, Stanford University, Fall 2016


Fig. 1: U.S. Atlas-A missile in 1957. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The nuclear triad refers to three types of nuclear weapon delivery developed during the Cold War: strategic manned bomber planes, land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs). This nuclear umbrella was established as national security and policy communities sought to better understand the nuclear bomb and its possibilities. [1] National security let policy drive technology to maintain the nation's nuclear deterrence during the Cold War. However, recent studies and policy makers have questioned the continual importance of these three arsenals in protecting the nation.

Nuclear bombs were a revolutionary technology introduced into national security strategies in the late 1930s following the discovery of fission. Nuclear bomber planes were the first of the triad, as they became U.S national security's chief strategy in replacing conventional parity with the Soviet Union. [2] The first bomber plane, the B-52, was flown in 1946; within two decades there were over 1,300 bomber planes in the U.S. posing a threat of a nuclear air attack. [3] The accuracy of the nuclear bomb was not realized until the late 1950s when it was mobilized by attaching it to a ground missile. This prompted the launch of the first ICBM in 1957 by the Soviet army, shortly followed by the U.S Atlas-A missile four months later (see Fig.1). The triad was complete in 1961 with the deployment of the first SLBM, Polaris A-1. [1] At the apex of the Cold War, in 1967, the U.S had deployed 656 SLBMs across the globe giving the U.S a distinct advantage as it was able to strike from anywhere in the word. [1]

Each leg of the triad is distinctive in its ability to surprise or accurately attack the enemy from air, land or sea. The bomber plane is the safest of the triad using PALs to keep its weapons secure, this is necessary as it is the only nuclear weapon to cross-continents. Additionally, it is the most flexible as it is able to alter its cargo and weaponry from the home base. The ICBM is the most accurate weaponry and is able to destroy even hardened silos that have been reinforced against attack. It is also the only weapon that remains situated on home soil so are safe from enemy sabotage. [3] The SLBM is the stealthiest of the three arsenals as it is able to go undetected from radar and thus target an unsuspecting enemy and remain intact following a first attack. [2]

The main purpose of the nuclear triad was to diminish the risk of a nuclear war, as by ensuring a second attack was possible, the U.S. has nuclear primacy. These policy driven technologies came to fruition in the mid 1970s and have thus far worked in preventing a nuclear war. Changes in national policy over the last decade have instigated a 75% reduction in the nation's nuclear arsenal. [1] Obama envisioned the abolishment of the nation's nuclear weapons, however, as Lowther remarked, the U.S. may be put at risk if the nuclear arsenal is reduced "to a point that nuclear deterrence loses the credibility that enables its success." Although reducing the U.S. nuclear weapon effort may be the best strategy financially and may encourage others nations to do the same, it seems needless to abolish that which triggered our past success.

In 2010 there were 95 bomber planes remaining in the U.S., 76 B-52Hs and 19 B-2 bombers, and 450 ICBMs. Both were expensive to procure, update and maintain and had their ordinance limitations. In order to remove some of the stockpile but maintain nuclear deterrence, the U.S. could transfer resources from the two, less essential, legs of the triad to focus on improving other policy strategies and the intricacy of the remainder of the nuclear triad, the SLBMs. [1] Since the Cold War's end, the SLBMs have become significantly more accurate with the introduction of the Trident II D-5 missiles; additionally, nuclear warheads now carry a larger-yield. [3] If the U.S continues to improve this technological development, with focus on advanced sonar and torpedo technology, the SLBM could be the only nuclear weapon required to maintain nuclear primacy. [1]

We must question the necessity for not only each leg of the triad but for nuclear weaponry all together. The nuclear triad is a significant monetary investment for the nation and it also contradicts America's signature on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. We need to reconsider our commitment to improving nuclear weapons when the most material threat to national security today is hate-crime from independent terrorist groups that do not have access to nuclear weapons. [1,2]

© Fran Tew. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] A. B. Lowther, "Should the United States Maintain the Nuclear Triad?," Air and Space Power Journal 26, No.2, 23 (2010).

[2] W. J. Perry, "Military Technology: An Historical Perspective," Technol. Soc .26, 235 (2004).

[3] K. A. Lieber and D. G. Press, "The Rise of Nuclear Primacy," Foreign Aff. 85, No. 2, 23 (Spring, 2006).