Home Homeland Security Can the US Safely Eliminate Its ICBM Arsenal?

Can the US Safely Eliminate Its ICBM Arsenal?

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By Dr. Stephen Schwalbe
Faculty Member, Public Administration at American Military University

A recent headline in the Los Angeles Times asked the question, “Upgrading U.S. nuclear missiles, as Russia and China modernize, would cost $85 billion. Is it time to quit the ICBM Race?”

The authors of the article, W.J. Hennigan and Ralph Vartabedian, point out that in addition to Russia and China’s upgrade of their nuclear weapons, Pakistan, India and Israel continue to build new nuclear weapons and delivery systems.

In this context, upgrading the U.S. nuclear weapons program has become part of the national agenda. America’s aging nuclear arsenal, much of which was built many decades ago, is nearing the end of its service life.

What most U.S. lawmakers are interested in is the overall modernization cost over the next few decades. A recent Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report put the cost at an estimated $1.2 trillion:

  • $772 billion for the operation, sustainment and modernization of strategic nuclear delivery systems
  • $445 billion for research labs, production facilities that support nuclear weapons activities, and the command, control, communications and early-warning systems connected to nuclear forces
  • $25 billion for shorter-range aircraft and their nuclear weapons

Is Our Strategic Nuclear Triad Worth the Money?

Some prominent national leaders have questioned the need to spend this kind of money for the three parts of our nuclear weapons program, known as the Strategic Nuclear Triad. The triad consists of:

  • A land-based component (i.e., Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles – called Minuteman III missiles)
  • A sea-based component (i.e., nuclear submarines with sea-launched ballistic missiles)
  • An air component of strategic bombers such as the B-52 and B-2 armed with nuclear bombs and nuclear–tipped cruise missiles)

Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), speaking at the Brookings Institution on May 19, 2016, said: “It’s very, very, very expensive….Do we really need the entire triad, given the situation?”

The Air Force is responsible for two-thirds of the triad: the land-based ICBMs and the strategic bombers. However, Air Force officials worry about the Minuteman’s ability to penetrate adversaries’ missile defense systems. The current 400 Minuteman III missiles are each armed with a single warhead, per treaty agreement.

The Minuteman III was developed in the 1960s and first deployed in 1970. The 50-year-old hardware still works, but not without extensive and expensive maintenance. The Pentagon has begun work to replace the Minuteman with a new generation of missiles and launch control centers.

However, the upgrade would cost $85 billion, one of the most expensive projects in Air Force history. So, the question today is how essential are the 400 strategic missiles siloed under the plains of Colorado, Nebraska, Wyoming, Montana and North Dakota?

Sub-Based Missiles and Strategic Bombers Can Deter an Enemy Attack

The argument for eliminating ICBMs is stronger today than ever. Advocates for eliminating the land-component of the Strategic Triad say that submarine-based missiles and strategic bombers have improved their capabilities and are now more than potent enough to deter any enemy attack.

Former Defense Secretary William J. Perry called for phasing out the entire land-based ICBM force. He argued that its continued deployment is too costly. With the missiles on continuous alert and ready to launch instantly if satellites and/or radar detected an enemy attack, a mistake or faulty warning could trigger an accidental nuclear war.

“The ICBM system is outdated, risky and unnecessary,” the LA Times article quoted Perry as saying. “Basically, it can bring about the end of civilization with a false alarm. It’s a liability because we can easily achieve deterrence without it.”

Former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel also called for the elimination of ICBMs before he took office. President Trump’s Defense Secretary, James N. Mattis, questioned the need for the missiles in 2015 when he was a four-star general.

Similarly, Kingston Reif, Director for Disarmament and Threat Reduction policy at the Arms Control Association in Washington, D.C., stated, “I think the ICBM leg of the triad is by far the least valuable leg of the triad, and the effort to sustain it should reflect that. ”

“Air Force leaders also worry that Russia, China and North Korea are investing in new nuclear missile systems that would erode the military edge that the Minuteman III has provided with its reliability and accuracy,” Hennigan and Varftabedian wrote. At some point, they said, the Minuteman’s ability to penetrate future missile defense systems could be compromised.

Elimination of ICBMs Would Allow an Enemy to More Easily Destroy Nuclear Deterrents

However, according to Major General Fred Stoss III, Director of Operations at the Air Force Global Strike Command, eliminating the 400 ICBMs and their launch capsules as targets would allow an enemy to destroy our remaining nuclear deterrents — three strategic bomber bases and two strategic submarine bases — with just five nuclear weapons. That would leave the U.S. vulnerable to a quick nuclear weapon attack.

Of course, the other two parts of the Strategic Triad – air and sea – are mobile, so that argument is not credible. At any one time, 10 of the 12 nuclear-powered submarines armed with ballistic missiles are at sea in stealth mode. It would be almost impossible to destroy even one of these so-called “boomers.”

Given that the U.S. would receive at least a 20-minute or more warning of any ballistic missile attack, the Air Force would be able to launch its fleet of strategic bombers, leaving empty airfields for the attacker to bomb. In any case, all of the Air Force’s strategic bombers are not located at these two bases at any one time.

The bottom line is without the ICBM part of the Strategic Triad, the remaining strategic dyad would be survivable and capable of retaliating against any nuclear weapons attack against the United States. The nuclear deterrence used to justify Strategic Triad modernization would still apply to the dyad.

To further enhance the U.S. justification for maintaining its nuclear weapons arsenal, President Trump should declare a no-first-use policy, saying that the United States would never use nuclear weapons first against an adversary.

There are two primary reasons why he should do so.

First, in the post-Cold War international environment, it is hard to imagine when or against which country the U.S. would deploy a nuclear weapon. It is highly unlikely Trump would authorize a ballistic missile attack against Russia or China, even if we were attacked first with nuclear weapons.

The other fundamental reason to declare a no-first-use policy is that U.S. conventional forces are far more advanced, relative to the rest of the world. We can achieve much more tailored and targeted damage with our advanced conventional weapons than with “dirty” nuclear weapons. Fallout from those weapons would produce enormous radiation that could travel around the world and cause severe health and environmental problems, particularly for our allies in affected regions.

Our Conventional Forces Are Strong Deterrents to Attackers

The bottom line here is that our conventional forces are deterrent enough. No other country can fight around the world for an extended period of time as U.S. forces have been doing for over a decade now. No other country has the extensive number of military installations in all corners of the world as the U.S. does.

The Defense Department is currently working on a revised Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), which lays out the ground rules for the Pentagon’s procurement and use of nuclear weapons. The final version of the NPR is expected to be forwarded to President Trump for approval in early January. To the authors of the 2018 NPR, I would strongly recommend: phasing out the Minuteman III force, modernizing the remaining strategic dyad, and continuing to upgrade our conventional forces.

About the Author

Dr. Stephen Schwalbe is an associate professor at American Military University. He retired as a Colonel in the US Air Force after 30 years of service.   

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