The 'New Triad' of the Bush Administration: Counterproliferation and Escalation Dominance in US Nuclear Strategy

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The administration of George W. Bush has brought about significant changes in the nuclear strategy of the United States. Traditionally, the US calculus of deterrence was based on a nuclear triad of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), sea-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), and long-range bombers. This concept was expanded and modified in the Bush administration's classified Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) Report, completed on January 2002.(1) This document outlined a "new triad" strategic concept, based on nuclear and non-nuclear weapons, ballistic missile defence (BMD) systems, and a revitalized defence infrastructure.

Following from the recommendations of that report, the US has placed a renewed emphasis on nuclear and non-nuclear targeting of "rogue states" armed with nuclear, biological or chemical (NBC) weapons. The development of smaller yield and more accurate nuclear weapons for hard and deeply buried targets (HDBTs), alongside a significant ground- and sea-based ballistic missile defence capability, has also become a priority. While missile defence has typically been treated as an issue distinct from US nuclear strategy, the increasing incorporation of active defence systems in US nuclear policy indicates that such a casual distinction is becoming less appropriate or analytically useful.

The new triad is the key strategic concept that guides the current administration's nuclear strategy. It is also, however, a concept that is heavily indebted to the policies of previous administrations. Many of its components were actually developed in the 1990s, as part of the growing post-Cold War American emphasis on rogue states and counterproliferation. Rather than a fundamentally new or revolutionary concept, the new triad should in fact be seen as the most recent and explicitly "nuclear" manifestation of US counterproliferation efforts.

With its strong emphasis on offensive and defence capabilities, the new triad is meant to achieve "escalation dominance" over rogue states armed with NBC weapons. This form of "nuclear primacy" will have a definite impact on the nuclear deterrent capabilities of countries like Russia and China. This does not mean that an incipient arms race will take place. Nor does it mean the emergence of a Cold War era nuclear relationship with either country. But it does mean that changes in US nuclear strategy will be an important factor in their calculations of what is necessary for deterrence. In the short-term, a greater emphasis on secure and survivable second-strike capabilities should be expected. While this in itself will not automatically lead to strategic instability, the Bush administration's current emphasis on grand strategic "primacy" does provide a very uncertain and potentially unstable context for a renewed US interest in escalation dominance. This grand strategy may make US relations with both countries more adversarial. It may also create a situation where the new triad becomes that much more threatening.


The new triad is meant to be the new strategic concept for the uncertain post-Cold War security environment. A new mix of nuclear, non-nuclear and defensive capabilities is seen to be required for the unexpected and diverse threats facing the United States. The NPR outlines a new triad composed of offensive strike systems (nuclear and non-nuclear), defences (active and passive), and a revitalized defence infrastructure. These components are to be bound together by a sophisticated command, control, communications and intelligence (C[Symbol Not Transcribed]I) system.

Offensive strike systems

Offensive strike systems are a key component of the new triad. In a post-Cold War era defined by American conventional dominance and potential asymmetrical threats, offensive strike systems are meant to provide a greater degree of flexibility in the design and conduct of military operations in the 21st century battlespace. …