It is disturbing that the future of the strategic triad — a deterrent force composed of manned bombers, land-based ICBMs, and submarine-launched ballistic missiles — is in question just as a mutually reinforcing mix of forces has become more important than ever.
The rollout of the first B-1B bomber is a positive step, but the MX missile, central element in a modern strategic force, has been under heavy political and journalistic assault for many months, and congressional approval for its production is in some doubt. Those who oppose MX cite a variety of reasons for their opposition. These include perceptions of vulnerability and concern that it might annoy the Russians.
In September, this magazine reported that Soviet space stations and aircraft are using advanced synthetic aperture radar to detect and track submerged submarines. Translation of this technology into an operational antisubmarine capability is probably a decade or so away. But whether the breakthrough is by means of radar or from some other technology, the day of increased vulnerability for submarines at sea is coming, just as the ICBM force is unlikely ever again to be as invulnerable as our Minuteman ICBMs were through the 1960s and into the 1970s.
These developments make it timely to recall the rationale for the triad and to place some of the questions, including those about vulnerability of strategic systems, in proper perspective. The overall decrease that results from lowered survivability for individual systems is a cause for concern but not for alarm. A more relevant point is that it increases the requirement for a triad of forces.
A number of characteristics are desirable in a strategic deterrent force. Among these are fast response, flexibility, reliability, accuracy, and effectiveness against hardened targets, mobility, high readiness rates, low operating costs, good command and control features, and survivability. No single component of the triad optimizes all of these, but each optimizes some of them.
Credibility of the US deterrent requires that hardened Soviet military assets be held at risk by our strategic force. Otherwise, the strategic balance becomes dangerously instable and the Soviet Union may be encouraged to exploit its advantage, most likely through power politics and attempts to intimidate other nations. As hardening technology advances, no component of the current triad, not even the MIRVed Minuteman III missiles, will put any significant share of the Soviet hard targets at risk. The MX would do so however, and that is why its presence in the force mix is so important.
A greater degree of survivability for the ICBM force may be possible as US silo-hardening technology matures and as the small single-warhead ICBMM, probably a mobile system, comes into service. A less vulnerable basing mode might be adopted for MX. It would be a mistake, though, to focus on survivability, as the only significant characteristic of a strategic system, for that is not the case.
It is also a mistake to consider the individual components of the triad in isolation, because considerable mutual survivability accrues form the nature of the triad itself. It would be virtually impossible for the Soviets to attack all components of the triad simultaneously in an absolutely perfect first strike without triggering one or more of those components in time for them to react and retaliate.
Short of a modernized triad of strategic forces, the full range of characteristics and capabilities required for an adequate deterrent posture will not be available. And as comforting as old realities give away to new realities and options, the synergism of deterrent forces can only increase in importance.