America’s ICBMs are ageing. Does it still need them?


WHEN THE Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) entered development, Lyndon Johnson was president, the Vietnam war was in full swing and the first series of “Star Trek” was on television. When the missile entered service in 1970, it was cutting-edge. The tip of each one could disgorge three separate warheads, each with a yield ten times higher than that of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, on three different targets. More than half a century later the Minuteman III is America’s last ICBM standing. Four hundred of them are studded in the ground across silos in five midwestern states, ready to blast out and deliver atomic vengeance within minutes of a presidential order.

The Minuteman III is one leg of America’s nuclear triad, the suite of silos, submarines and bombers that carry its 1,457 deployed nuclear weapons, within the limit of 1,550 set by the recently extended New START treaty with Russia (more bombs are in storage). All three legs are getting rusty. The oldest bomber, the B-52, at 66, is old enough to draw a pension; the youngest, the stealthy B-2, was designed in the late 1970s and will retire in a decade or so. The oldest Ohio-class submarine will celebrate its 40th birthday in November. Replacements for these weapons are on the way. A new bomber, the B-21 “Raider”, will conduct its first flight next year; a new Columbia-class submarine will start prowling the oceans in a decade. Yet the future of the ICBM force is more uncertain.

In theory, a successor to the Minuteman III is in the pipeline. In September America’s air force granted Northrop Grumman, an arms company, $13.3bn to begin work on a Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD). The new ICBM force, scheduled to take over in 2029 and remain in service until 2075, will boast “increased accuracy, extended range and improved reliability”, according to General Tim Ray, commander of the Air Force Global Strike Command. But not everyone thinks this is a good idea. In January 2019 the Congressional Budget Office estimated that the Trump administration’s nuclear modernisation would cost $494bn during 2019-28, with new ICBMs accounting for $61bn of that. Why lavish funds on sticking nukes in the ground, ask critics, when submarines and bombers can do the job as well if not better?

The answer, say ICBMs’ proponents, is three-fold. One argument is that the ICBM force is the most “responsive” leg of the triad. Bombers can be recalled once launched, but take longer to get into the air and reach their targets. Submarines are easy to hide and can get closer to targets, but it is harder to communicate with a submerged boat. By contrast, ICBMs can be launched within minutes (though in peacetime they are aimed at the open ocean rather than enemy cities).

That level of alertness horrifies critics, who see it as an invitation to nuclear calamity. But it means that ICBMs could be used to strike enemy missiles being readied for use, or launched before incoming enemy missiles landed. “Without American ICBMs,” notes a report by the Hudson Institute, a think-tank, “an adversary would need to strike only five targets (three bomber and two submarine bases) to eliminate most of the US nuclear force.” The modernisation of Russia’s nuclear forces, a process that is further along than America’s, and the steady expansion of China’s arsenal, compounds these worries.

A second argument is that ICBMs serve as a hedge against technological breakthroughs, such as new underwater-detection capabilities or air defences, which might put submarines or bombers at risk. And then a third argument lurches further into the macabre and surreal corners of nuclear strategy. If Russia wanted to disarm America with a surprise attack, it would have to use several warheads—capped under New START—to take out a single hardened silo. The silos thus serve as “sponges”—in the jovial argot of nuclear types—soaking up Russian missiles and leaving America with a superior number of surviving weapons aboard subs and bombers for any subsequent exchange. The fact that America maintains only silo-based ICBMs, rooted to the spot, rather than the mobile ones favoured by every other nuclear power, lends credence to the sponge rationale.

For critics of ICBMs, these arguments are fantastical and specious. A sponge for warheads is only useful if you think a Russian first strike is a realistic prospect in the first place. Even without silos, America has ample subs and bombers to destroy Russia as a functioning society. And because Asia-bound ICBMs would have to fly over Russia, it would be risky to use them against China or North Korea without making Vladimir Putin undesirably twitchy. Pranay Vaddi of the Carnegie Endowment, a think-tank in Washington, also points to a tension between the defensive logic of the sponge, which simply requires basic missiles to absorb a Russian attack, and the air force’s demand that the new GBSD have improved offensive capabilities—attributes that would make the missiles better suited for an American first strike on an enemy.

This Strangelovian debate has played out alongside a political one. Last year Congress ponied up the money for modernising the triad, including GBSD, despite reservations from prominent Democrats, such as Adam Smith, the chair of the House Armed Services Committee. At his confirmation hearing in January Lloyd Austin, President Joe Biden’s defence secretary, expressed his support for the triad. So too did Kathleen Hicks, his deputy. Yet, pressed by senators from silo-hosting midwestern states, where the ICBM force is a major economic factor, both acknowledged that Mr Biden would have the last call.

Such is the centrality of the triad to American nuclear policy—one expert quips that it is the Pentagon’s “Holy Trinity”—that the president is unlikely to quash it altogether. Mr Vaddi suggests that an alternative approach would be to pause GBSD and eke out the Minuteman III by reducing the number of deployed systems and cannibalising non-deployed ones for parts. The idea is that this would buy time to negotiate a mutual cut in ICBMs and warheads with Russia, which plans to deploy its own new ICBM, the Sarmat, next year.

One former senior arms-control official says that the Biden team should avoid tackling the ICBM issue head-on and work to “build up trust in the ICBM caucus states,” at the same time stretching out the GBSD programme over a longer period. The programme might then collapse under its own financial weight, much as the MX “Peacekeeper” missile, a similar ICBM project, did in the 1980s.

Whether or not Mr Biden is open to this, the nuclear mood is undoubtedly changing. In its election platform last year, the Democratic Party lambasted America’s “overreliance and excessive expenditure on nuclear weapons”, including “wasteful” new weapons. The implied target was not just ICBMs, but also a suite of other programmes. These include the W76-2, a low-yield warhead for submarine-launched missiles introduced by Donald Trump, refurbishment of the B61-12, a low-yield bomb dropped from warplanes, and the Long-range Standoff Weapon, a delayed replacement for America’s current air-launched cruise missile.

Left-wing activists and anti-nuclear NGOs are not the only ones to have raised questions. On February 5th Michele Flournoy, a defence expert well regarded among Democrats and Republicans, who was narrowly pipped to the Pentagon job by Mr Austin, noted the growing importance of “emerging non-nuclear technologies to shore up deterrence”, such as cyber capabilities and conventional missiles. “Literally every dimension of the nuclear modernisation programme, given its price tag...will be carefully, carefully scrutinised and scrubbed,” she warned.

Meanwhile, alongside that debate, over what sort of nukes America should build, and how many of them, is a related one over how it should wield them. One question is whether America should declare that the “sole purpose” of its nuclear weapons is to deter nuclear attack. Such a commitment might seem innocuous, but—depending on its precise formulation—would probably require America to forswear a nuclear response to, say, a North Korean invasion of or biological attack on South Korea.

An even bigger shift—advocated by Mr Biden in his final days as vice-president—would be a No First Use, or NFU, policy, which would further preclude America from pre-empting another country’s imminent nuclear launch. America’s allies in Europe and Asia, huddled under America’s nuclear umbrella, would be uneasy about either option. Yet as long as American ICBMs remain cocked and ready under the prairie, America’s rivals may not care a great deal.