6-1: Politics of the Nuclear Triad

In class and in our readings we have discussed the strategic rationale of potentially eliminating a leg of the nuclear triad of ICBMs (land), SLBMs (sea), and nuclear bombers (air). Yet, for all of the discussion regarding the strategic importance behind maintaining different legs of this triad, we have not truly considered the reality of approving such an option. In particular, how would the strategic motives behind the arms reduction clash with the political and financial incentives of a divided congress? The New START treaty cut the number of U.S. warheads from 1790 to 1550 by 2018, and it is now thought that further action will lead to a continued reduction in warheads. As the U.S. Strategic Nuclear Forces: Background, Developments, and Issues Report states, “President Obama and the U.S. military may want to consider the implications of these basing, operational, and policy changes, before deciding whether or not to reduce to 1,000 warheads, as opposed to choosing the warhead number first then deciding later how to base and operate the remaining nuclear forces.” In particular, I think it is important to consider not only these operational changes, but also the interests they serve, and how these interests will affect what actions can be taken.

In an article written one year ago, The Center for Public Integrity wrote about a letter written from House Republicans to President Obama regarding their “deep concern” about cuts to the nuclear arsenals. Interestingly, most of the members who signed this letter were members of the House Armed Services Committee, which received a total of $1.12 million from employees and PACs representing the four largest defense contractors. Companies like Boeing and Lockheed Martin (ICBMs and bombers), Northrop Grumman (bombers), and General Dynamics (submarines) have a vested interest in preventing reductions in the nuclear arsenal, as represented by their over $11 million in contributions since Obama’s declarations of nuclear reduction in 2009. As the article points out, these companies are large employers in key districts represented by both Democrats and Republicans. Aside from the ramifications on American jobs in these districts, the power held by these companies in regards to the American political process is one that should not be ignored prior to deciding a new arms reduction strategy.

This is not to mention the location of actual bases and the congressmen and congresswomen who have a vested interest in assuring that no resources are pulled from their states. Another article in the Global Security Newswire, titled “GOP Senator Sees Threat to Nuclear Triad Under Obama,” described how Senator John Hoeven of North Dakota strongly opposed President Obama’s consideration of reducing the nuclear arsenal. Considering that the three states that hold ICBM silos are North Dakota, Montana, and Wyoming, it is no shock that politicians from these states will use their power to prevent withdrawal of resources and spending. The most interesting point from these two articles is that they illustrate that reducing the nuclear arsenal and potentially eliminating one of the legs of the nuclear triad is much more complicated than simply arguing for a strategic military rationale for their reduction. We must also consider the political ramifications of how resources and military spending will be redistributed given different decisions. I think we may find that the different incentives will be highly intertwined in coming to a decision regarding the nuclear triad. — Niv