American Secretary of Defense James Mattis made the first stop in a three-day tour of America’s nuclear triad on Thursday, as he continues to review the nation’s nuclear posture and ballistic missile defense in the face of repeated threats of preemptive nuclear strikes from Kim Jong un’s North Korean regime.

Mattis already visited the submersible leg of America’s nuclear triad on August 9th, when he met with a group of sailors tasked with manning the nation’s ballistic missile submarines at Naval Base Kitsap in Washington State.  The nuclear triad is a term used to refer to the three different methods of nuclear weapon delivery employed by the United States, designed to ensure that no offensive nuclear strike could completely wipe out America’s means to return nuclear fire, and ensure the threat of “mutually assured destruction” stays intact even if taken by surprise.

We’re on the way to Minot,” the secretary told reporters traveling with him on Wednesday. “I want to see the airmen who serve out there, on alert, all the time, intercontinental ballistic missile airmen and B-52 airmen, and talk to their commander, talk to the troops, just get a feel for how it’s going and hear directly, unfiltered, their view of their mission, their readiness,” he added.

Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota is home to not just one, but two legs of America’s nuclear triad.  Nuclear capable B-52s, which have been in service under various iterations since the 1950s, stand ready for takeoff on the airstrip, with Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles, or ICBMs, tucked away beneath the surface of America’s Great Plains.  After meeting the with B-52 nuclear bomber crews, Mattis will tour the missile alert facility that controls the ICBMs, as well as the weapon storage area where airmen maintain a stockpile of nuclear warheads.

“I know they’re ready,” the secretary said of the airmen at Minot, “but I want to know the obstacles for their readiness so I can do something about it. I get good reports but I always like going out and talking to human beings face to face,” Mattis said.

America’s nuclear triad has been the subject of repeated pleas to lawmakers from defense officials, as each of the three legs of the triad are in danger of aging into obsolescence.  Neither aforementioned B-52s, nor the stealthier and nuclear capable B-2 bomber are capable of supersonic flight, for instance, and America’s Minuteman III ICBMs rely on 5.25 inch floppy disks and hopelessly outdated computer systems for operations.  Even America’s nuclear submarines are at risk, as sequestration has strangled importance maintenance and repair funding from the Navy’s operational budget – leaving some submarines operating with disintegrating sound proofing, and some others pulled from service due to overdue, and necessary, maintenance and repairs.

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Mattis, a former Marine General, is undoubtedly aware of these challenges, but by visiting the crews tasked with overcoming them, he can almost certainly gain a better understanding of how best to approach solutions.  The Air Force has already granted contracts to Boeing and Northrop Grumman to being work on designing new ICBMs, but that solution is still a long way away.  Controversial new nuclear cruise missiles that can be launched from B-52s and B-2s are also being adopted to allow the aging aircraft the ability to fire missiles from further away, in order avoid advanced anti-aircraft weapon systems.  Both of these programs are important updates to America’s nuclear deterrent, but an overall upgrade to the entire nuclear defense infrastructure is necessary to keep America on higher ground than its competitors.

Some have considered eliminating one of the legs of the nuclear triad in order to reduce the overall cost of maintaining it, but Mattis was quick to dismiss such a possibility.

Not as a cost-savings mechanism. There’s a way to do cost-saving within a triad. But I think what is most important is, in a deterrent, you can leave no doubt at all that [it will work] … You want the enemy to look at it and say, ‘This is impossible to take out in a first strike, and the retaliation is such that we don’t want to do it.’ That’s how a deterrent works,” the secretary said.

When an understanding that even America’s massive defense budget can only go so far, a reporter then asked Mattis if he intended to prioritize updates to the nuclear triad over conventional platforms that are currently in use in combat zones around the world.  Mattis responded by saying that there will be prioritizing, but it won’t be so broad as “nuclear over conventional.”

If I was to sum up the challenge we face right now in the U.S. military, it’s how do you maintain a nuclear deterrent, safe and effective so those weapons are never used, and at the same time maintain a decisive conventional force because, as expensive as that is, it’s much less expensive than having to fight a conventional war because someone thought you were weak,” he said.

After James Mattis leaves Minot Air Base, he’ll travel on to U.S. Strategic Command in Omaha, Nebraska to continue his nuclear tour, before heading for Mexico to participate in their Independence Day celebrations.

 

Image courtesy of the Department of Defense