The nuclear triad

  • Published
  • By By Lt. Col. Justin Grieve
  • 509th Operations Support Squadron commander
Members from the United States Strategic Command recently paid a visit to Whiteman Air Force Base (AFB), Missouri, to discuss an evolution to our nation's strategic nuclear war plan with B-2 mission planners that work in the 509th Operations Support Squadron. In addition, they provided a briefing on strategic deterrence theory to a small number of 509th Bomb Wing members.

It got me thinking that it would be nice if we could break down the massive concept of strategic deterrence for all of the folks at Whiteman AFB that support the nuclear mission each and every day; highlighting the awesome power of the B-2 stealth bomber.

This article will focus on a single fundamental principle of nuclear deterrence: the nuclear triad.

The nuclear triad of the U.S. consists of a portion of the Air Force bomber fleet, Air Force inter-continental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), and the U.S. Navy's submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs). These three components share many attributes and capabilities, but they are inherently unique. It is the unique and complimentary nature of these forces that have stood the test of time. The flexibility of the bomber force, the robust nature of the ICBM force, and the survivability of the SLBM force are the key elements that make the nuclear triad essential and indispensable. 

Flexible, robust and survivable - these three simple words you can take away from this article that, in my opinion, perfectly describe the nuclear triad.


The entire fleet of twenty B-2 Spirit bombers is nuclear capable. A larger number of B-52 Stratofortress bombers, also known as (aka) "BUFF", are nuclear capable, but there are B-52s in use today, on the ramps at Barksdale AFB, Louisiana, and Minot AFB, North Dakota, that are no longer nuclear capable. This was accomplished by removing some internal hardware and is accompanied by minor external changes to simplify treaty verification processes. The B-1 Lancer, aka "Bone", was a nuclear-capable bomber until the mid-1990s. Today, the B-1s at Dyess AFB, Texas, and Ellsworth AFB, South Dakota, only support the conventional, non-nuclear, mission. As of Oct. 1, 2015, all three Air Force bombers, the B-1, B-2 and B-52, fall under the authority of Air Force Global Strike Command. Note, there are also limited numbers of fighter aircraft in United States Air Forces in Europe (USAFE) that are nuclear capable as well.

Our role in the 509th Bomb Wing is to support both nuclear and conventional taskings. We directly support the nation's nuclear capability each and every day -- ensuring the very flexible and visible bomber deterrence option.

We exercise our nuclear capability at least twice a year during Constant Vigilance and Global Thunder. These exercise events test our readiness and demonstrate our ability to visibly posture our nuclear force. If called upon, the nuclear bomber force would provide the only flexible nuclear deterrent as it is capable of being executed and recalled by the national command and control authorities.

We stand ready for no-notice exercises and real-world tasking, and are always prepared to flawlessly execute this no-fail mission.


The Air Force's ICBM force consists of 450 in-ground missile silos at Minot AFB, Malmstrom AFB, Montana, and Francis E. Warren AFB, Wyoming. Not all of the silos are filled in accordance with agreements made between the U.S. and Russia in the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). The missile fields of Minot AFB and Malmstrom AFB cover great distances in both North Dakota and Montana, respectively, while Francis E. Warren AFB stretches from the Southeast corner of Wyoming into portions of both Colorado and Nebraska.

The ICBM force, geographically separated and hardened, is also very visible -- providing a credible and extremely-robust deterrent. Without the missile fields complicating and overwhelming the targeting efforts of potential adversaries, the nation would be left with only five strategic targets (three nuclear bomber bases and two nuclear submarine bases). This change in calculus could embolden potential adversaries and would dramatically decrease the nation's deterrence capability.

The ICBM force has been on alert since 1959 and represents an immediate response option for the nation. Unlike the bomber, no generation spin-up is required.

The robust nature of the ICBM force is directly linked to the immediate alert posture and challenging tactical problem it presents to our adversaries, and is essential to the success of the nuclear triad.


The U.S. Navy's SLBM force is based out of two locations -- Naval Base Kitsap, Washington, for the Pacific Ocean, and Kings Bay, Georgia, for the Atlantic Ocean. Unlike both the bomber and ICBM forces, the SLBM force thrives on its lack of visibility.

The survivable nature of the SLBM force provides a stabilizing effect. It ensures a retaliatory strike capability and actually serves to minimize the need for a rapid decision to "use or lose" ICBM and bomber forces. The SLBM force provides enhanced security for the nation and is essential to the nuclear triad and deterrence operations.

Flexible, robust and survivable -- these three simple words perfectly, and simply, describe the nuclear triad. Each component is critical and complimentary for nuclear deterrence. You, as a member of Team Whiteman, are vital to the nuclear mission of America, and the nuclear mission is of critical importance to this nation and the allies we support. The B-2 stands, in my mind, as the ultimate nuclear-deterrence option: flexible, visible, credible and capable. Take pride in the amazing capability Whiteman AFB provides to our adversaries, and is essential to the success of the nuclear triad.