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Modernized Nuclear Triad Is Best Deterrence

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Chinese, Russian and North Korean advances in cyber and space technologies mean the Atlantic and Pacific oceans no longer provide safety buffers for the U.S. mainland, said Air Force Gen. Timothy Ray.

Speaking Monday at the Air Force Association's Air-Space and Cyber Conference, Ray said we must modernize our space and cyber defenses and maintain our nuclear triad in order to protect our homeland and our allies.

The fiery trail of a missile lights up a dark sky.
Minuteman Launch
An unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile launches during an operational test at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., May 1, 2019.
Photo By: Airman 1st Class Aubree Milks
VIRIN: 190501-F-VU029-1006C

The U.S. nuclear triad consists of 400 intercontinental ballistic missile Minuteman IIIs and 156 strategic bombers, as well as ballistic missile submarines, said Ray, commander of Air Force Global Strike Command, Air Forces Strategic-Air and U.S. Strategic Command. He noted that both Russia and China also have their own nuclear triads.

Although a foundation of the National Defense Strategy is an emphasis on partnerships, Ray said that strategy doesn't work very well when it comes to the nuclear triad because the U.S. is the only nation among the allies and partners that has intercontinental ballistic missiles and strategic bombers. He said the last allied bomber squadron retired in 1984. 

A military plane touches the ground during takeoff and landing training.
Touch and Go
An Air Force B-2 Spirit bomber performs a touch-and-go maneuver at Royal Air Base Fairford, England, Sept. 11, 2019. The maneuver involves landing on a runway and taking off again without coming to a complete stop.
Photo By: Air Force Senior Airman Thomas Barley
VIRIN: 190911-F-WU042-1005A

"So there's no coalition capability in this mission set," he said, noting that Russia and China have nuclear triads.

There are currently only 156 U.S. strategic bombers. But studies have shown that between 225 and 386 are needed to get the U.S. to the low-risk posture," Ray said.

In addition, many of the current bombers — the B-52 and B-2 bombers — are very old, and the planned replacement bomber, the B-21s, are years away from production, he said.

Regarding the ICBMs, Ray said there's no open production line for a new Minuteman. The first were installed in 1962, with the latest version — the Minuteman III — coming out in 1970. 

Illustration of submarine
Submarine Illustration
An artist’s rendering of the future Columbia-class ballistic missile submarines.
Photo By: Navy illustration
VIRIN: 190306-N-N0101-125C

"We're living with a very ancient fleet," Ray said.

And the replacement for the 18 Ohio-class submarines — the Columbia-class submarines — are also years away from production, he said.

While Congress has authorized funding to modernize the nuclear triad, Ray cautioned that in the meantime, "we really have to think about using these resources as wisely as we can for the next few years until we get ourselves to the new capacity."

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