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

4 thoughts on “6-1: Politics of the Nuclear Triad

  1. The complex interconnections between the public and private spheres do complicate the issue of nuclear arms reductions. The nuclear weapon program is not an isolated governmental defense plan, but a strategy around which a business and industry has sprung. Niv notes the individual contractors who will lobby for whatever leg of the triad is most profitable for them. Individual states have economic interests in keeping their bases functioning and employing citizens. In “The Ever-ready Nuclear Missileer,” Hodge and Weinberger give a ready example through their clear description daily life in Cheyenne, Wyoming, home of the Warren Air Force Base. The town rallies around the nuclear missile base and views it as an integral part of their past and future, as visitors can clearly see during a visit to the Warren ICBM and Heritage Museum. As nuclear reductions occur, the purpose and future of towns such as Cheyenne becomes uncertain, and involved industries will face the challenges of adapting to evolving military needs.

  2. This reminds me of the military-industrial complex Eisenhower warned about and was definitely evident in Cheyenne, Wyoming. While large defense contractors have a vested interest in specifically maintaining the three legs of the nuclear triad, there might be ways to incentivize their individual employees and local politicians to support such strategic reduction, namely by substituting for ICBMs/SLBMs/bombers with other industries and jobs. Although there would be obstacles and various costs to any such transitions, even Cheyenne transformed over time “from frontier outpost to nuclear missile base.” If alternatives can be found, it might become politically more palatable to implement reductions under the new START.

  3. I agree that offering alternatives to the nuclear weapons industry can help make reductions easier to swallow. For example, my family is from Minot, ND, one of the three ICBM towns. Right now oil is booming in the western part of the state and Minot is the nearest city. If nuclear stockpiles were reduced, it is possible that Congress would give favorable considerations to the oil industry. Fracking is the main technique used to extract the oil in ND, and Congress intervention could involve looser restrictions on the storage of fracking fluid. This would inevitably draw ire from environmental groups, but if Congress needed to appease the local politicians, this is a possible solution.

  4. It is true that completely eliminating one leg of the triad would have negative financial effects on whatever private contractors do business in that area. However, all of the private contractors mentioned here have been around for a long time, and it is because they are so good at evolving to fit the changing nature of defense. Lockheed Martin (formerly just Lockheed) has been around for about a century, working on an extremely broad range of defense projects. Their business model is designed so that policy decisions, such as eliminating long-range bombers from the nuclear arsenal, may set them back, but will not severely endanger the longevity of their business. I’m sure that most other successful private contractors are built upon a similar business model. The fact that they are contributing large amounts of money to prevent nuclear cuts may indicate that they do not want them, but it is likely that they would ultimately be able to live with them. The key issue here would be negotiating with these contractors to get them to embrace this reality, and attempting to reduce the stranglehold that they have upon certain political circles.

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