Sputnik Escalates the Cold War
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Triad

U.S. strategic nuclear force comprised of three components: manned bombers, land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs). The nuclear delivery capability of the United States originally relied upon the long-range bomber force of the Strategic Air Command (SAC). During the late 1950s, the strategic delivery force began to expand to include U.S. Air Force–controlled ICBMs and the U.S. Navy's SLBMs. The early triad structure was a natural evolution of new technological capabilities, but military planners also developed a strong strategic rationale based on the realities of each type of weapon system and the need to create a stable deterrent force structure.

The manned bomber force was the most accurate delivery platform. Additionally, bombers provided the most flexibility. Aircraft could be launched or forward-deployed as a show of force, and having a crew in the loop allowed bombers to be recalled or redirected while in flight. The bombers could also conduct visual assessments of targets or search for specific types of targets in a general area to counter new or mobile targets. But bombers had major vulnerabilities. They could be attacked before they launched, especially by missiles, and the aircraft were relatively vulnerable to air defense systems. Bombers were also relatively slow, taking many hours to deliver nuclear weapons over intercontinental ranges.

The ICBM force provided the capability for rapid strikes against enemy targets, with flight times of approximately thirty minutes, and the ability to maintain a large percentage of the force in a high-alert status. Although the land-based missiles were potentially vulnerable due to their fixed locations, they could be launched relatively quickly before being hit and were often placed in hardened silos for protection. Mobile ICBM options were developed in response to improved Soviet accuracy but were not deployed. Early ICBMs were much less accurate than bombers, although the differences were significantly reduced over time. The submarine force was the most survivable of the three systems. Although communications with the submarines were initially a concern and accuracies were initially below those of the other two legs of the triad, these performance issues were steadily rectified over time.

The triad's offensive capability was melded together in the Single Integrated Operations Plan by the Joint Strategic Target Planning Staff, which was colocated with SAC headquarters. The use of different weapons delivery platforms complicated the defensive preparations of the Soviet Union, the primary target of American strategic nuclear planning. More importantly, the varying characteristics of the three weapons systems made an effective enemy attack, especially a surprise attack, much more difficult. Although the Soviet force structure was also referred to as a triad, that structure was much less balanced and relied heavily on land-based ICBMs, with a secondary capability in SLBMs, and a limited long-range bomber force. The American triad and its contribution to nuclear deterrence was the foundation of geopolitical stability and military balance during the Cold War.

Jerome V. Martin


Further Reading
Collins, John M. U.S.-Soviet Military Balance: Concepts and Capabilities, 1960–1980. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1980.; Kahan, Jerome H. Security in the Nuclear Age: Developing U.S. Strategic Arms Policy. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 1975.
 

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