It has long been said that the US has a “nuclear triad” made up of nuclear weapons that could be delivered by three different means- bombers, ground based missiles, and submarine launched missiles. Is that even accurate any longer? The short answer is no, it isn’t.
Our ground based bombers are no longer available as a part of the triad. Sure, we still have deliverable warheads, but there is no alert force, no SIOP, and no organized plan for delivering them. In fact, the US only has 66 nuclear capable strategic bombers remaining in our inventory. The B-1 bomber used to be able to deliver nuclear weapons. Nope. Not anymore. The B-52 can, but those bombers are older than the grandfathers of the pilots who now fly them. The B-2 Spirit can, but there are only a handful of those. At best, we could drop a few weapons, but the truth is that there just isn’t a way to deliver enough warheads by bombers to make that a credible deterrent. Don’t believe me, ask the Air Force, who has said:
You’re going to need more aviators, you’re going to need more Security Forces [personnel], more maintainers … more bombers … infrastructure improvements at the [alert] facilities, and you’re going to need more tankers.
What about the Air Force’s ground based ICBMs? You mean the LGM-30 that was designed with a 10 year lifespan, but has been in service for over 50 years? The Minuteman III began development in 1964 and entered service in 1970 with a force of 550 missiles. There are 440 of them left, and 400 of them are on alert. The missiles originally carried a total of 1,500 warheads- most had three warheads each. As of June 16, 2014, on Obama’s orders, the U.S. Minuteman III missiles have only a single warhead. Now they carry only 400- a 75% reduction in deliverable warheads by this leg of the triad.
What about from the sea? When I was in the Navy, we had the capability to launch nuclear strikes from aircraft carriers. That capability was completely taken from the Navy by George HW Bush. That capability is gone, and cannot be replaced. The training and knowledge was lost when we eliminated the personnel whose job it was to make that happen.
The Navy also had the ability to use Tomahawk cruise missiles to deliver nuclear warheads. That’s gone as well.
Then there are the much advertised SLBMs. There are 18 of the Ohio class submarines, but 4 of them have been rendered incapable of carrying SLBMs, leaving 14 nuclear capable submarines in the Navy. Scheduling means that only 4 of them are on station at any given time, for a total of 80 SLBMs on alert at any given moment. As for the missiles themselves, they can carry up to 14 warheads each, but in practice they each carry four warheads, on average. So the Navy can deliver 320 warheads at any given time.
In total, adding them up, the US is capable of delivering less than 750 warheads in response to an enemy surprise attack. In October of 2022, US intelligence estimated that the Chinese had 450 land based ICBMs. They also estimate that the Chinese will have more than 1500 warheads by 2035.