Op-Ed — It’s Time to Ditch the ICBM, America’s Thermonuclear Dinosaur
Land-based missiles are obsolete
by GEOFF WILSON & NOAH WILLIAMS
The Cold War has been over for 25 years now, but the United States still maintains a massive arsenal of nuclear weapons and delivery systems — and they don’t come cheap.
For example, we still spend $2 billion a year just in operations and support costs for the U.S. ICBM force. And we are about to spend a whole lot more.
As part of the Pentagon’s planned trillion-dollar nuclear spending spree, America’s inventory of Minuteman III land-based nuclear missiles are set to be replaced by a shiny new fleet of ICBMs dubbed the Ground-based Strategic Deterrent, which are supposed to enter service by 2028.
But even before the new missiles enter production, cost estimates are soaring. Bloomberg recently reported that the planned overhaul of America’s ICBMs is now projected to cost at least $85 billion. That’s 36-percent more expensive than the Air Force’s original estimate of $62 billion.
Even this figure, “is a placeholder number that’s at the low end of potential costs,” according to an Aug. 23 memo from Pentagon weapons-buyer Frank Kendall to Air Force Secretary Deborah James.
In the face of an uncertain and ballooning program cost, the real question we should be asking is — why aren’t we just retiring the ICBM part of the arsenal? ICBMs are an anachronism, a thermonuclear dinosaur, and have been for a long time. The strategy for their use is a relic of the Cold War, they do nothing to counter the real threats we face today and they can easily stand to be eliminated from the U.S. nuclear arsenal.
To Russia with love
With the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, the ICBM mission has been relegated to theory.
Designed as a deterrent against Russian nuclear forces in the 1970s, the Minuteman III can only really hit targets inside of Russia. While they could technically reach targets outside of Russia, say North Korea, China or Iran, missiles fired at those targets would still have to overfly Russia. In that scenario the Russians would, understandably, think a salvo of nuclear warheads was coming their way and launch a counterattack.
To hold targets inside and outside of Russia at risk, the United States also maintains an even larger fleet of submarine-launched ballistic missiles. The Ohio-class submarines carry roughly 1,150 warheads split between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.
That’s more than double the 440 warheads in the ICBM force, and because they are deployed on silent and stealthy nuclear submarines, they are virtually invisible. ICBM silos by contrast, can be seen by Russian satellites and are vulnerable to a first strike. SLBMs guarantee a second strike capability in the event of a nuclear attack, making ICBMs redundant.
According to former secretary of defense William J. Perry, “between our submarine forces, as they are modernized in particular, and our strategic bomber forces, [ICBMs are] not needed. Any reasonable definition of deterrence will not require them.”
So if ICBMs can be cut without weakening U.S. deterrence, why waste money on them? ICBMs remain a part of the U.S. arsenal due to some pretty draconian Cold War logic.
Cold War theorists, who were faced with rapidly proliferating arsenals thought that ICBMs and their silos could be useful as a target, a warhead sponge, that would force an enemy to waste hundreds of missiles destroying U.S. silos in sparsely-populated areas instead of hitting our cities and industrial bases. This “great sponge” of U.S. targets would absorb the Soviet warheads, and make “a surprise attack look futile to the Kremlin.”
Unfortunately, this callous thinking persists today. Certainly, if you are a resident of North Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, Nebraska or Colorado, the five states that still base U.S. ICBM silos, soaking up warheads may not sound like a great use of your hometown. What’s more, it seems like a stupid way to spend nearly $2 billion a year.
Use it or lose it
Beyond the faulty logic of this “sponge theory,” the presence of hundreds of land-based ICBMs reduces the president’s reaction time in the event of an apparent nuclear strike. Faced with the prospect of an all out attack on the United States, be it legitimate or phony, the commander-in-chief would be forced into a “use it or lose it” scenario — either launch every ICBM at Russian targets, or risk them all being wiped out.
The real problem here is that false alarms happen more often than you would like to think, and the immense pressure put on commanders to launch could cause a nuclear war through a simple technical glitch.
“The Department of Defense admitted 1,152 ‘moderately serious’ false alarms between 1977 and 1984 — roughly three a week.,” according to Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.
One such false alarm occurred in 1979 when the North American Aerospace Defense Command mistook a training tape for a real Soviet attack. “NORAD issued warnings that went out to the entire intercontinental ballistic missile force and put the president’s airborne command post in the air.”
In his recent book My Journey at the Nuclear Brink, Perry remembers being woken by the warning call from the watch officer at NORAD.
“The general got right to the point: his warning computer was showing two hundred ICBM missiles in flight from the Soviet Union to targets in the United States. For one heart-stopping second I thought my worst nuclear nightmare had come true. But the general quickly explained that he had concluded this was a false alarm … It was a human error. A catastrophic nuclear war could have started by accident, a frightening lesson that I have never forgotten.”
Similarly, in 1983 Soviet duty officer Stanislav Petrov received a satellite signal warning of five incoming nuclear missiles launched from the United States. Petrov chose not to report the attack despite the apparent certainty of the computer system and instead called in a system malfunction. “When people start a war, they don’t start it with only five missiles,” Petrov said. Once again, only quick thinking averted tragedy.
The mere existence of ICBMs complicates the already nightmarish decision-making process of a nuclear launch. With thermonuclear annihilation as the ultimate consequence, there is no room to rely on luck.
ICBMs are relics of the Cold War, and the men and women tasked with maintaining them seem to feel left behind.
In a series of exposés for the Associated Press, Robert Burns reported on an institutional culture rampant with misconduct among members of the Air Force assigned to the ICBM fleet, including drug abuse and cheating on technical and readiness tests. In 2014, then-secretary of defense Chuck Hagel ordered a major review of the ICBM force in an effort to correct the various failures and improve morale in the missileer crews, but little progress has been made.
The missileer corps today remains undervalued, under-promoted and largely irrelevant in combating the very real threats we face around the globe every day.
Why? According to former missileer John Noonan, “being a missileer means that your worst enemy is boredom. No battlefield heroism, no medals to be won. The duty is seen today as a dull anachronism.”
Likewise Brian Weeden, a former launch officer at Malmstrom Air Force Base, recalled his experience after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. “We couldn’t do anything,” he said. “The mantra had always been that the nuclear deterrent would keep America safe. But it didn’t. So I felt, not only did we fail to deter those attacks, but we couldn’t do anything about it after.”
U.S. ICBMs did nothing to deter the 9/11 attacks, just as they have played no part in the War on Terror, the longest conflict in U.S. history. That realization takes a toll on the men and women who are asked to control our nation’s deadliest weapons. But no matter the reason, drunk, high and bored human beings are not who you want controlling nuclear missiles that can be launched at a moment’s notice.
It is time to retire America’s arsenals of ICBMs. They are costly, dangerous and serve no real purpose in today’s modern military.
“The one thing that I convinced myself after all these years of exposure to the use of nuclear weapons is that they were useless. They could not be used,” former chairman of the joint chiefs of staff Colin Powell said in 2010. So why should we spend $85 billion on a whole new fleet of these nuclear money pits?
The answer is, we shouldn’t. The ICBM mission is easily handled today by our fleets of sub-launched missiles and bombers.
If they were to be cut, the billions of dollars being spent on ICBMs could instead be invested in America’s conventional forces that are deployed around the world every day fighting ISIS, providing disaster relief, keeping international sea lanes open and advancing America’s interests abroad. For example, for the annual cost of maintaining the Minuteman III, the United States could field the active component of a U.S. Army brigade combat team, or six Marine infantry regiments.
The dinosaurs died out a long time ago. It’s about time this one followed suit.
Geoff Wilson is the policy associate at Ploughshares Fund, a global security foundation. Noah Williams is a research assistant at Ploughshares Fund.