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Wither the Nuclear Triad? Maybe not.

The Pentagon needs to keep all three legs of the nuclear triad in light of its shrinking inventory of nuclear weapons and the rise in numbers of nuclear weapons around the globe, the U.S. Air Force's top civilian official said this morning.

"I think, as, our nuclear force structure potentially gets smaller in the context of START, it's all the more important that we maintain a balanced triad going forward," said Air Force Secretary Michael Donley during a July 25 breakfast on Capitol Hill. "In the context of rising nuclear capabilities elsewhere in the world, it's even more important that we have the flexibility across land and air-based and sea-based legs of the triad. We have flexibility of basing those, in targeting methods and other aspects of this mission that give us confidence that we can continue to deter potential nuclear ambitions of others and that we have the flexibility to respond if necessary through various means."

While the Air Force waits for the Pentagon to decide whether or not to continue with the triad -- which has consisted of the air service's land-based nuclear bombers and intercontinental ballistic missiles and the Navy's submarine-launched ballistic missiles since the early 1960s -- it has developed a program to keep its 450 Minuteman III ICBMs, which were first deployed in 1970, in service until 2030.

Donley's comments come just two weeks after Air Force Gen. Robert Kehler, chief of U.S. Strategic Command, said the triad may not always be the best arrangement for nuclear deterrent. "My view today is that the triad continues to serve us well. It may not be true in the future, but it continues to serve us well," said Kehler, who is in charge of the nation's nuclear forces, on July 12.

Speaking of weapons designed to deter nations from developing weapons of mass destruction, Donley also said the Air Force's stash of 30,000-pound Massive Ordnance Penetrator super bunker busters is ready for use even though the new weapons are being upgraded to give them even more penetrating power. "If it needed to go today, we could do that," said Donley. "We continue to do testing on the MOP to refine its capabilities but we also the capability to go with the existing capability." The MOP, which entered service in late 2011, is designed to smash through up to 32 stories of concrete after being launched from the B-2 stealth bomber. Earlier this year, the Air Force decided to upgrade the bombs to allow them to reach the most deeply buried targets, such as Iran's sensitive nuclear facilities.

MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

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