• U.S.

Toning Up the Nuclear Triad

9 minute read

In the 40 years since the Enola Gay, a B-29 long-range medium bomber, dropped its atom bomb over Hiroshima, America’s nuclear-weapons systems have evolved into what has been known for the past 25 years as the Triad. The name comes from the fact that U.S. strategic nuclear weapons are based in the water, on land and in the air. Defense strategists agree almost universally that all three legs of the Triad are essential because each by itself has weaknesses that are offset only by the strengths of the other two. Land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), for example, are the most accurate and powerful strategic weapons in the nation’s arsenal, but the fixed underground silos in which they are stored also make them the most vulnerable. Airborne bombers, which can be recalled from attack up to the moment their nuclear payload is fired, provide a President with the most flexible strategic weapon currently available, but also the slowest. Submarine-based missiles are virtually undetectable by the Soviets, but at least until recently, they were considered less accurate than land-based or airborne missiles.

As part of its overall military modernization, the Reagan Administration has ordered or overseen major improvements in all three of the Triad’s legs. To assess the changing nature of the nation’s strategic defense machine, TIME Pentagon Correspondent Bruce van Voorst sampled day-to-day operations in each of the Triad’s components. He dived with the Trident submarine Henry M. Jackson off the Bahamas as the vessel made final preparations to join the Pacific Fleet, strapped himself into the cramped confines of a B-52 on a simulated bombing strike out of South Dakota’s Ellsworth Air Force Base and inspected a Minuteman training launch capsule, also in South Dakota. Van Voorst’s report:

The nuclear-powered Jackson is the fifth of 20 Trident submarines planned for sea duty by the 1990s. With a length of 560 ft. and a weight of 18,700 tons, it is as big as a World War II cruiser, yet it glides under the surface at speeds of more than 25 knots (comparable land speed: 28.7 m.p.h.) and is capable of operating at depths considerably greater than the 600 ft. to which Navy sources admit. Tridents carry the single most devastating element of the Triad. Stowed inside tubes that cut like shafts through the Jackson’s four decks are 24 Trident I C-4 missiles, each carrying up to ten nuclear warheads, every one of them with a yield of 100 kilotons and capable of destroying a midsize Soviet city. With a range of more than 4,000 nautical miles, the missiles can deliver their deadly packages of firepower within 1,000 ft. of target center.

The Jackson’s mission will be to prowl the Pacific depths on cruises averaging 70 days, always remaining hidden and within missile range of its targets. Says Captain Michael Farmer, 45, a lanky six-footer with an air of quiet self-confidence: “Our job is to go to sea and disappear. Our total invulnerability to Soviet strikes then becomes a factor of deterrence.”

During a practice firing, announced by an ear-shattering klaxon that called the 158-man crew to battle stations, Farmer assumed his post in front of the sub’s dual periscopes. As crewmen ticked off information about bearing and depth, the captain verified each reading and repeated in a low but firm voice, “I agree.” Then, checking a console screen to his left that showed the status of his 24 weapons, he ordered, “Make missiles ready.” In the missile control center one deck below, Weapons Officer Lieut. John Hardenbergh worked at two other consoles that control the silos and the firing of the missiles. Both men have metal keys, each of which must be turned in their console before ignition can occur.

Hardenbergh’s console controlling the launchers is dominated by rows of seven lights showing the status of each missile, ranging from “dummy” (the missile is passive) to “missile away.” Each weapon has been pretargeted and carries highly sophisticated, computer-controlled guidance systems. The final release would be performed by Hardenbergh with a pistol-grip firing trigger attached to his console. The missiles are propelled through their silos by compressed gas, which then forms a bubble around them until they reach the water’s surface and ignite automatically.

Life aboard any submarine, even the newest, is filled with constraints. Besides the close quarters and long patrols, there are special precautions that would occur to few civilians. Because the Soviets are constantly listening for audible signals from underwater U.S. craft, for example, submariners must be careful to keep telltale noise at a minimum. This effort includes obvious steps like maintaining complete radio silence. It also extends to such daily details as wearing rubber-soled shoes and refraining from knocking on hatches.

By submarine standards of yore, life aboard the Jackson borders on easy duty. The $2 billion Tridents contain the first flush toilets in an underwater craft, and the first stairs. The air is kept at a constant 72 degrees and circulates rapidly enough to make smoking permissible. Instead of being assigned to “hot racks,” or beds that rotate among off-duty personnel, each crew member has his own bunk, equipped with stereo headphones. Food is copious, though overindulgence is rarely a problem. As one crew member explained, “We have to remember that hatches out of this place are only 24 inches in diameter.”

The long periods of isolation aboard the Jackson only make starker the realization that confronts every member of the armed services who actually fingers a nuclear trigger: a single squeeze would change the world forever. Farmer, for one, has thought through endless contingencies, including the nightmare of losing contact with Washington during a presumed attack. Says he: “I would not launch without authorization, period.” By the same token, he does not flinch from the thought of carrying out his doomsday role. Says he: “If a captain is not prepared to execute, there is no deterrence.”

The U.S. strategic bomber fleet currently consists of about 260 B-52s, the newest of which is more than 20 years old, and some 60 supersonic FB-111s. Despite their age, however, the B-52s have been upgraded through the years with new avionics, weapons launchers and electronic warfare equipment. Several times each month, six-member B-52 crews keep in training by flying exercises that closely approximate what they would do in a retaliatory strike against the Soviet Union. Commanding one recent flight, a 2,000-mile swing over six northwestern states, was Captain Chris Patterson, 32, a second-generation Air Force officer.

About five hours into the flight the pilot went into a steep dive, dropping from an altitude of 30,000 ft. to a mere 400 ft., the B-52’s attack position. Traveling at that height at a speed of more than 400 m.p.h., the huge bird bounced and bobbed over the Utah grazing land, its wings shuddering against the turbulence. Below, ranch hands scowled at the intruding roar. After going through the procedure of authenticating its “war message,” Patterson pulled a pair of switches at his left hand, activating the nuclear gravity bombs and the nuclear-tipped short-range attack missiles (SRAMs), which would be dropped by parachute in a real attack to allow the jet to reach a safe distance from the explosion.

The attack is computer directed, with the crew knowing nothing about a target other than its geographic coordinates. The first bombing target on this flight, a direct hit as confirmed on a ground radar system, turned out to be a corral in mid-Wyoming. The next was a ranch house 60 miles away.

In June, the Air Force received its initial B-1B bomber, the next generation of nuclear attack craft. Smaller and faster than the B-52, the B- 1B is the first big bomber specifically designed for low-level attack patterns, and it will carry air-launched cruise missiles in addition to nuclear bombs. Its swept-wing silhouette and camouflage-style exterior make it virtually undetectable on Soviet radar. The Air Force is scheduled to assemble over the next three years a fleet of 100 B-1B bombers, at a cost of $20 million each.

+ America’s 1,027 ICBMs are scattered in underground silos in nine states in the Midwest, South and West. Each of the silos is connected to one of 100 or so control capsules, the unit where a presidential command to launch the U.S. arsenal of intercontinental ballistic missiles would actually be executed. At a Minuteman training facility in rural South Dakota, a routine watch was under way one recent stormy day. On duty were Air Force Captain Daniel Campion, 28, and Lieut. Richard Lamb, 25. Their casual conversation was interrupted by the wail of a klaxon, signaling the arrival of an urgent message ordering them to prepare a launch. Checking code numbers, Campion announced, “I have a valid message.” Responded Lamb: “I agree.” From the same message they learned that the alarm was part of an exercise.

In a real emergency, Campion would next reach for an 8-in. by 10-in. painted red metal box sealed by two combination locks. Each officer knows one, but not both, of the combinations. Inside are further authenticating documents, plus the keys needed to activate the missiles. To prevent such an action from occurring on the judgment of a single officer, the locks into which the keys fit are situated 12 ft. apart and must be turned simultaneously.

The U.S. Minuteman arsenal is scheduled to be augmented or partly replaced, beginning in 1986, by a new generation of MX “Peacekeeper” missiles. Congress has so far funded 42 of the new missiles, each of which will carry ten warheads with at least 300 kilotons of explosive power apiece, compared with the Minuteman III’s three warheads, each packing up to a 330-kiloton punch. Reagan would like to build 100 MX’s, but critics say its many warheads make the MX an inviting target for Soviet strategists and thus a destabilizing weapon.

Though some strategists urge the U.S. to place more emphasis on its Trident fleet at the expense of both the land-based and airborne parts of its nuclear arsenal, no leading strategist would eliminate any one of the Triad’s legs. “There are no practical alternatives,” says Vice Admiral Ron Thunman, who heads the Navy’s submarine program. Robert Komer, a former Pentagon official, says, “It’s just the natural balance of power and threat.”

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