MINOT, N.D.—During the Cold War, the United States developed a vast nuclear arsenal with weapons on aircraft, submarines and land-based missiles. These three ways of delivering nuclear weapons became known as the triad, with the Soviet Union as the primary target. The strategy was to deter an attack on the United States by having enough nuclear weapons that could survive a strike and retaliate.
Over the next three decades, the Pentagon plans to spend $1 trillion to rebuild the triad. Military commanders and civilian experts say nuclear weapons are used every day to deter a nuclear attack against the U.S. and that the current stockpile needs to be replaced because they are old. An example: the B-52H bombers began flying in the late 1950s early 1960s and are older than the crews that fly them.
But critics say the Defense Department is duplicating what it had during the cold war. Two leading critics, former defense secretary William Perry and former top nuclear commander Gen. James Cartwright (Ret.), say one leg of the triad—land-based nuclear tipped missiles—should be phased out.
Read the full transcript below:
Gwen Ifill: But, first, for over a half-a-century, the United States has maintained a large and diverse nuclear arsenal to deter other countries from even contemplating a nuclear strike against America.
Now, as the Pentagon embarks on a wide-ranging, and hugely expensive, plan to modernize what's known as the triad, bombers, submarines and missiles, there are calls to rethink whether all three are needed.
Special correspondent Jamie McIntyre has our report, produced in partnership with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
Jamie McIntyre: Behind this massive eight-ton door 60 feet below the frozen fields of North Dakota, a 27-year-old first lieutenant heads a two-person team with a singular mission.
The two junior Air Force officers are missileers entrusted with executing the most consequential of presidential orders. At almost the same time, at nearby Minot Air Force Base, a B-52 Stratofortress that's been flying for more than half-a-century is drenched with deicing fluid. Its aging jet engines roar to life with the help of eight explosive charges, a method developed during the Cold War to give the bomber a quick kick-start in a crisis.
All the while, hundreds of feet beneath the Pacific Ocean, sailors aboard a U.S. ballistic missile submarine methodically perform their weekly doomsday drill, three ways to do the same thing, end the world as we know it, by launching nuclear weapons.
Man: Weapons away.
Jamie McIntyre: Missiles, bombers, subs, America's nuclear triad, a three-pronged approach to deterrence that dates back to the 1960s, when the former Soviet Union was the enemy, MAD, mutual assured destruction, the strategy, and thermonuclear war seemed a real possibility.
Adm. Cecil Haney, U.S. Strategic Commander: The real key here, as you look at the combination of the triad, is making the adversary's problem very complex, very costly, so that restraint is a better option.
Jamie McIntyre: U.S. Strategic Commander Cecil Haney is the four-star admiral in charge of America's nuclear arsenal. He says the triad endures because it's still the surest way to guarantee that, even if hit with a first strike, plenty of U.S. nuclear weapons would survive, enough to allow Haney to present the president a full range of options.
It's a strategy based on redundancy, having backups for backups. But to critics, maintaining and rebuilding all three legs of the triad in the 21st century amounts to expensive overkill, among those critics, former Defense Secretary William Perry.
William Perry, Former Defense Secretary: Well, you can have belts and suspenders, and then belts and suspenders for the belts and the and suspenders. And that is what we are getting into here.
Jamie McIntyre: Perry says the current strategy is based on the folly of winning a nuclear conflict, the kind of Cold War thinking caricatured in the classic movie "Dr. Strangelove."
George C. Scott: Mr. President, I'm not saying we wouldn't get our hair mussed. But I do say no more than 10 to 20 million killed, tops, depending on the breaks.
William Perry: The whole sort of "Dr. Strangelove" rationale that went with how you use nuclear weapons, which was endemic to the Cold War, I don't think is in place today. If we regard nuclear weapons, the role of nuclear weapons today, as preventing the use of nuclear the weapons against us, then all of that goes away.
Jamie McIntyre: The United States is at the point where, to maintain the safety and reliability of its aging nuclear arsenal, largely designed in the 1950s and '60s, almost everything needs an upgrade. There are plans for new submarines and stealth bombers, along with upgraded bombs and missiles to go with them.
Add in the possibility of next generation land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, ICBMs, and the price tag comes to an eye-popping $1 trillion over 30 years. Despite the substantial cost, trimming the triad is not an issue that's gotten any serious examination on the presidential campaign trail.
It did come up once in last December's GOP debate.
Question: Of the three legs of the triad, though, do you have a priority? I want to go to Senator Rubio after that and ask him.
Donald Trump (R), Republican Presidential Candidate: I think—I think, for me, nuclear is just the power, the devastation is very important to me.
Jamie McIntyre: If Donald Trump had an understanding of the triad, he gave no hint, and it fell to Marco Rubio to fill in the gap.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), Republican Presidential Candidate: The triad is our ability of the United States to conduct nuclear attacks using airplanes, using missiles launched from silos or from the ground, and also from our nuclear subs.
Jamie McIntyre: Each leg of the triad has its advantages. Submarines are stealthy, virtually undetectable, and therefore nearly invulnerable.
Bombers are slow enough to be recalled at the last minute. It's the third leg, the intercontinental ballistic missiles, on hair-trigger alert, that are under the microscope.
We're flying over the missile field that essentially surrounds Minot Air Force Base, 150 ICBMs buried in silos underground spread across 8,500 square miles of North Dakota.
It's just one of three missile fields that cover five states, Montana, Wyoming, Nebraska, Colorado, and North Dakota, 450 ICBMs altogether. Were it not for the security fence, this silo would be barely visible in the snow. But the locals know where it is, and so do America's enemies.
Having so many missiles in fixed, known locations makes them a tempting target if an adversary were to contemplate a first strike, which in turn, critics argue, creates pressure to launch right away, at the first sign of attack.
Among those critics, no less than former U.S. Strategic Commander General James Cartwright.
Gen. James Cartwright (RET.), Former U.S. Strategic Commander: You have automatically forced the president, in our case, to make a decision to use his weapons or lose them. That doesn't make a lot of sense. Use or lose doesn't contribute to deterrence.
Jamie McIntyre: Cartwright is now chair of studies at Global Zero, a disarmament advocacy organization. He thinks the day of the ICBM may have come and gone.
Gen. James Cartwright: I believe that the current ICBM structure, the way it's based and the way it operates, is probably not something that we need to carry to the future.
Jamie McIntyre: Jim Miller was undersecretary of defense for policy during the Obama administration, and led the Pentagon's review of nuclear weapons policy. He argues that land-based ICBMs are a hedge against unforeseen complications.
James Miller, Former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy: Without a substantial number of ICBMs in the United States, if we had some problem, a technical problem, or a vulnerability because of any submarine warfare of potential adversary with our submarines, we'd be left with an adversary having to undertake an attack involving only a handful of aim points in order to take out a deterrent.
Jamie McIntyre: At Minot Air Force Base, Colonel Kelvin Townsend, vice commander of the 91st Missile Wing, stressed that neither subs, which have to be contacted at sea, nor bombers, which have to be put on alert and fly to their launch points, can match land-based missiles for speed of response.
Col. Kelvin Townsend, Vice Commander, 91st Missile Wing: Anywhere on the planet, we can be within moment's notice. And within roughly 30-plus minutes, we can be there.
Jamie McIntyre: But that quick reaction time makes the ICBM potentially the most destabilizing leg of the triad, argues former Defense Secretary William Perry:
William Perry: If you're going to blow up the whole world, what is the hurry? Why do you mind waiting another 20 minutes to do that? I don't see either the common sense or even the strategic argument for doing that.
Jamie McIntyre: And Perry says no one has found any reliable way to detect or defeat submarines at sea. Bombers and submarines can do the job, he argues, with a high degree of confidence.
At the Air and Space Museum in Washington, Joe Cirincione gazes at a Minuteman-III ICBM on display. He's president of the Ploughshares Fund, which advocates deep cuts in the U.S. nuclear arsenal. He says supporters of keeping all three legs of the triad have lost touch with the destructive power of the weapons.
Joseph Cirincione, Ploughshares Fund: One nuclear weapon on one city would be a disaster that we haven't seen since World War II. Ten nuclear weapons on 10 cities would be catastrophe beyond historical experience. And hundreds of weapons on hundreds of cities could end human history altogether. Why do you need 5,000?
Jamie McIntyre: For now, the debate over the triad is purely academic. The latest Pentagon budget funds plans to begin rebuilding all three legs, and no one in Congress is mounting any serious opposition.
For the PBS NewsHour, I'm Jamie McIntyre.
Gwen Ifill: There's a lot more online about rebuilding America's triad. You can see excerpts of key interviews and view a photo essay, all that at PBS.org/NewsHour.