Secretary Gates did not rule out eliminating one leg of the nuclear triad as he wound up a news conference at the Pentagon on Wednesday, saying that nothing can be "off the table" as Washington begins the Mother of All Reviews to determine how to cut $400 billion in defense spending. Which leg would he keep? Earlier in the session, he told reporters there were things the Pentagon must buy no matter what -- and one them was replacement for the Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines. His must-buy list did not include the Air Force's nuclear-capable, next-generation bomber.
Gates has said before that he'd be open to phasing out one of the legs of the triad -- which also consists of the Air Force's nuclear bomber fleet and its ground-based intercontinental ballistic missiles -- but there was no forward movement. Today, however, the U.S. is almost broke and anti-spending elements in Congress want to cut, cut, cut, which could reawaken a debate over America's nuclear posture. President Obama is a lifelong anti-nuclear activist, and if Gates were on board, cutting the triad could become a big part of the pending mega-review.
If a debate does take place, it won't be pretty -- congressional lawmakers from strategic weapons districts guard them jealously. And the Obama administration just went through a bruising political fight over the New START treaty last year in the Senate, where Republicans took every opportunity to attack the president for what some said was a willingness to weaken America's strategic position in the world. There's a Washington school of thought, in fact, that the U.S. should begin building new nuclear weapons, not just preserving or recapitalizing what it has -- although in Austerity America, that is almost certainly off the proverbial table.
The other important factor is that Gates is a short-timer, and he won't be around even to see the end of his mega-review, let alone to argue for cutting a leg of the nuclear triad. So the next questions are what incoming Secretary Panetta will think of all this, and which battles he'll pick with Congress as a part of these budget cuts.