What Is Nuclear Deterrence?



Deterrence is the capability to discourage, or prevent others from acting on a threat.

“The purpose of a deterrent force is to create a set of conditions that would cause an adversary to conclude that the cost of any particular act against the United States of America or her allies is far higher than the potential benefit of that act.”

General Chilton
Former Commander, USSTRATCOM,
Oct 2007-Jan 2011


The three components of nuclear deterrence are:

  • Capability
  • Willingness to expend nuclear weapons
  • Adversaries knowledge of our will and capabilities
Triad Strategic Systems

Bombers B-52 & B-2

SLBM – Trident II (D-5)

ICBM – Minuteman III


B-52 Stratofortress

  • 85 in Service (44 nuclear)
  • Minot AFB, ND
  • Barksdale AFB, LA
  • Range 8800 mi unrefueled
  • 20 (ALCM)
  • History
    • Developed – 1951
    • IOC – 1952
    • Refurbishment – Present


B-2 Spirit (Stealth)

  • 20 in Service (16 nuclear)
  • Whiteman AFB, MO
  • Range 6900 mi unrefueled
  • 16 (ALCM, B83, or B61)
  • History
    • Contract award- 1981
    • IOC – 1997
    • Modest Mod: In process

Sea Based

  • 288 Missiles in 12 subs
    (Ohio Class SSBN)
    • 5 subs based in Atlantic
    • Kings Bay, GA
    • 9 subs based in Pacific
    • Bangor, WA
    • 2 subs in dry dock
    • 4 – 6 Reentry Bodies
      • Max capability 12 RBs
    • History
      • Go-ahead – 1981
      • 1st launch – 1987
      • IOC – 1990
      • Life Extension: 2002-Present

Land Based

  • 450 Silos/Missiles
    • 1 – 3 Reentry Vehicles (New START limits to 1)
  • 45 Launch Control Centers
  • 3 Missile Wings
    • Malmstrom AFB, MT
    • Minot AFB, ND
    • F.E. Warren AFB, WY
  • History
    • Go-ahead – 1966
    • 1st launch – 1968
    • IOC – 1970
    • Life Extension: 1985-Present
Strategic System Attributes

Table and images



Triad Synergies

Each system’s unique & complementary capabilities mitigate risk through multiple success paths


  • ICBMs: carrying single warheads, can only be destroyed in their hardened silos multiple warheads in a first strike – an illogical trade-off for an attacker, consequently a single warhead force provides stability. 495 point targets on U.S. soil approaching 100% availability for commitment by POTUS.
  • SLBMs: invisibly deployed fleet provides survivability and assured second strike capability & assured reserve force after initial attack.
  • BOMBERS: provide flexibility in showing national intent, show of force, launch/recall. A very clear signal of national intent.


Nation’s insurance policy for enemy “changes of intent”


  • Intent can change over night. Capability takes decades to develop.
  • Provides nuclear force structure flexible and resilient to adapt to the “unknown” unknowns
Triad Facts
    • The TRIAD: Safe, secure, and reliable 24 hrs a day/7 days a week, available since the 1960s


    • Extended deterrence providing global stability to friends and allies


    • Indiscriminate adjustment could cause:


  • Nuclear proliferation by allies and others
  • Decreased global stability as parity becomes obtainable
  • Incalculable risk, and in turn the impossibility of calculating a risk mitigation plan



The most comprehensive, flexible, credible, available deterrence option for the United States and its Allies at an affordable cost to the US taxpayer through 2050


    • Only ~3% of the annual DOD budget

A credible, reliable, available deterrent is relevant in the increasing complex threats in the 21st century

Balanced Deterrence - Treaty History


ICBMs-Stability | SLBMs-Survivability | Bombers-Flexibility


Maintaining reliable nuclear force supports U.S. goal of non-proliferation

U.S. nuclear force assures protection of allies from attack


Stability Equation with 450 ICBMS

Stability Equation

Adversary’s incentive for attack in a crisis: LOW
aim-points require > 1:1 targeting ratio)

Stability Equation WITHOUT 450 ICBMS

Stability Equation_2

Adversary’s incentive for attack in a crisis: HIGH
aim-points to eliminates entire U.S. nuclear force)

Notion of 'Hair Trigger' Alert Status

There simply is no “hair-trigger”


  • ICBMs rely on a two-person command/control system that will not work without authenticated, coded launch orders issued by POTUS – a system that has safeguarded our nuclear deterrent for more than half-a-century.


General Kevin Chilton, former head of U.S. Strategic Command:


  • “The reality of our alert posture today” is that “the weapon is in the holster, the holster has two combination locks on it, it takes two people to open those locks, and they can’t do it without authentication orders from the President.”


ICBMs are not “destabilizing”


  • U.S. Minuteman IIIs, carrying single warheads, could only be destroyed in their hardened silos by multiple warheads in a first strike – an illogical trade-off for an attacker. By the same token, it would take multiple Minuteman IIIs attacking a single enemy silo to achieve comparable destruction – again, an exchange ratio unfavorable to the attacker.
On-Alert ICBMS are Stabilizing


  • System can survive any credible first-strike scenario
  • No incentive to launch on warning
  • Most stabilizing place for warheads is dispersed in hardened silos
  • Stockpiling elsewhere could encourage enemy first-strike
  • Short flight times and inherent survivability leave POTUS the most time for decision making
  • 450 hardened silos and 45 control centers ***

Positive Controls

  • Complete enable and launch codes are not available to ICBM crews
  • POTUS must authenticate and provide final portion of launch codes
  • Nuclear surety continually re-examined and certified safe and secure since Minuteman III was fielded in 1970’s