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America’s Nuclear Missiles Need Major Modernization

The proposed missile upgrade program saves money and deters nuclear war.
April 9, 2021
America’s Nuclear Missiles Need Major Modernization
A streak of light trails off into the night sky as the US military test fires an unarmed intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) at Vandenberg Air Force Base, some 130 miles (209 kms) northwest of Los Angeles, California early on May 3, 2017. (Photo credit should read RINGO CHIU/AFP via Getty Images)

It has been decades since most Americans gave much thought to the nuclear balance of power. While nuclear issues since 1991 have been dominated by proliferation to rogue states—Iraq, Libya, Syria, Iran, North Korea—America’s nuclear forces have not kept pace with developments in Russian and China, respectively the world’s largest and third-largest nuclear powers.

For seventy years, the United States’ nuclear deterrent has depended on the “nuclear triad”—the combination of land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and nuclear-capable bombers. The theory behind the redundancy is that it is practically impossible to destroy America’s nuclear capabilities at one time, so a retaliatory strike is guaranteed. The credibility of that retaliation deters another power from committing a first strike, preventing nuclear war.

To maintain that deterrence, the U.S. spends significant resources ensuring its nuclear forces are capable, survivable, and up-to date. But the current fleet of ICBMs, Minuteman IIIs dating from the 1970s, are becoming more difficult and expensive to modernize.

The proposed replacement missile, the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD), has come under criticism from two camps. The more disingenuous group favors extending the life of the ageing Minuteman over procuring the GBSD, which would make a viable strategic triad beyond the 2030s virtually impossible. The more honest—but wrongheaded—group calls for the complete elimination of the United States’ ICBMs. Both groups cling to—and propagate—a series of myths about U.S. ICBMs: that they are destabilizing, on a hair trigger, and subject to being launched on false warnings; that they force the hand of a president to launch them in case of attack; and that they do not really require replacement with the GBSD which, at any rate, would be too expensive. Underlying these myths is a belief that the nuclear triad is no longer necessary.

Each of these assertions is wrong.

Some ICBMs are destabilizing, but the Minuteman is not, and the GBSD would not be, as both are designed to carry only one warhead. The Obama administration’s 2010 Nuclear Posture Review reaffirmed the teaching of classical deterrence theory that single-warhead ICBMs are a stabilizing force because an attacker must expend at least one of his warheads (and more likely two) to destroy a defender’s missile. Such an unfavorable “attack ratio” makes them an unattractive target for an adversary contemplating a first strike. This rationale lay behind the George H.W. Bush administration’s attempt to eliminate multiple-warhead ICBMs in the START II Treaty. It should be noted that the “attack ratio” for the Russian ICBM force, which makes heavy use of multiple, independently targetable warheads per missile (known as MIRVs), and the increasingly MIRVed Chinese ICBM force, is much different.

U.S. ICBMs are not on a hair trigger. On a day-to-day basis, they are all aimed at the open sea, pursuant to a policy established by the Clinton administration as an additional safety measure to reduce the consequences of an accidental launch—an event never encountered since the United States first fielded ICBMs in the late 1950s. Furthermore, no U.S. nuclear system may be launched without the explicit direction of the president: There is no automated capability that could lead to accidental launch authorization. Again, Russian nuclear forces provide a contrast: The automated “Perimeter” back-up system will, under certain specified conditions, automatically launch Russian missiles. Indeed, the potential introduction of artificial intelligence into Russia’s nuclear command-and-control-systems makes Perimeter an Achilles heel for global stability.

While it is true that the United States experienced two false warnings during the Carter administration—one due to a failed computer chip and the other because a training tape was accidentally loaded into an operational system—there have been no similar incidents since then. Forty years’ experience of avoiding such mistakes should place them far down the list of national concerns. Furthermore, for those who remain concerned about false warnings, it should be clear that the existence of 400 Minuteman missiles would force an enemy to launch between 400 and 800 warheads in an attempted pre-emptive attack; an attack of such magnitude would provide indisputable evidence and a real warning of what was occurring.

Moreover, there is nothing that forces the president to launch ICBMs in case of attack. Longstanding U.S. policy requires that, for the nuclear deterrent to be credible, the United States must be able to absorb a full enemy attack and still strike back in a manner that inflicts damage that the enemy would consider unacceptable. In addition to the option to launch ICBMs when an enemy attack is underway, this capability for a retaliatory strike in worst-case scenarios strengthens deterrence.

With respect to possible life extension, the Defense Department has already done about as much as it can do. The Minuteman III system consists of three major parts: the missile/warhead combination itself, the infrastructure of launch control centers and missile silos, and a command and control network. Over the past few decades, upgrades to various parts of all three major sub-systems have kept the force operational, but the ability to extend their useful lives has become increasingly tenuous, raising concerns that the force would ultimately suffer an operational or technological failure. The GBSD program addresses all these concerns.

In January, Adm. Charles Richard, the head of U.S. Strategic Command, was quite blunt when asked about cancelling the GBSD program in favor of extending the Minuteman III: “Let me be very clear: You cannot life extend Minuteman III, alright?” One of Adm. Richard’s biggest worries is the system’s cyber resilience. With GBSD, he said, the United States will replace a 58 year-old system (the first generation Minuteman missiles were first deployed in 1962) with one that is up to current standards. “So just to pace the cyber threat alone, GBSD is a necessary step forward.”

Moreover, the cost of GBSD, according to repeated analyses conducted by the Department of Defense, will be lower than continued efforts to extend the life of the Minuteman III force, which historically has been the least expensive leg of the triad to operate and maintain.

At its heart, the debate over Minuteman and GBSD is a debate over the triad itself. Anti-nuclear activists believe the triad is redundant, is no longer relevant, and should be abandoned. They are right as far as redundancy is concerned—the triad’s overlapping capabilities have always been key to its rationale. For seven decades, the triad’s combination of three different basing modes, each with unique strengths and offsetting vulnerabilities, separate attack azimuths, and complementary alert postures has presented potential enemies with insurmountable obstacles. This provides deterrent stability because an aggressor cannot pre-emptively destroy the entire American nuclear force or prevent retaliation. It is hard to understand why the U.S. government would now want to run the risk of creating crisis instability by making it easier for Russia and China to target American nuclear forces.

Of course, the benefits of the triad are currently largely theoretical. Today the United States, on a day-to-day basis, is only protected by the ICBM and submarine legs. The bomber force is not on alert and would require a minimum of several days to return to alert status. Should an unexpected technical issue force a temporary stand-down of either the ICBMs or the sea-based force, the U.S. nuclear deterrent would be reduced to a single leg. The president would then face the politically difficult decision to re-alert a portion of the bomber force or rely on the single leg until the technical problem was resolved. If the ICBM force were to be eliminated—either voluntarily, or because a failure to upgrade to the GBSD left it vulnerable to cyberattack or technical malfunction—and technical problems arose with the sea-based leg, re-alerting the bomber force would be a president’s only option. Needless to say, preparing bomber wings for nuclear attack would not have a salutary effect on global stability.

Absent the ICBM force, a much smaller—and therefore potentially ambiguous—enemy attack is actually conceivable. The elimination of the U.S. ICBM force would even make a Chinese counterforce strike a credible threat. Furthermore, eliminating the ICBM force would allow Moscow and Beijing to invest more heavily in anti-submarine warfare in the hope, however unlikely, that artificial intelligence or some other new technology will enable them to successfully threaten the sea-based force in ways it has never experienced.

GBSD opponents frequently argue that moving ahead with the program will generate an arms race. The truth, however, is that both Russia and China have already been racing along for years, with new road-mobile and land-based ICBMs and other nuclear modernization programs, despite repeated postponements of a Minuteman III follow-on by the United States. Just recently, commercial satellite imagery exposed significant silo construction in China likely intended to accommodate its DF-41 ICBM.

The real issue is less a nuclear arms race, in which the United States is barely keeping pace, than the future of arms control. With the extension of the New START Treaty until 2025, the question facing the Biden administration is how to create incentives for Russia—and, hopefully at some point in the future, China—to negotiate seriously about reducing their respective arsenals and eliminating opportunities for miscalculation in times of crisis. It is hard to see how either objective can be met by unilaterally eliminating the U.S. ICBM force.

And so we return to the basics: The triad is stabilizing and should be retained. Within the triad, the single-warhead Minuteman III is a stabilizing force, but is increasingly unsustainable and must be replaced. The GBSD program is a cost-effective replacement for the Minuteman III and deserves broad support. If, after spending trillions of dollars in mere months, Congress or the administration were to begin finding places to trim the budget, cost-saving programs that deter nuclear attack would not be the place to start.

Eric S. Edelman and Franklin C. Miller

Eric S. Edelman is counselor at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments and a non-resident senior fellow at the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia. He is also the co-host of The Bulwark’s Shield of the Republic podcast.  He was U.S. ambassador to Finland from 1998 to 2001 and under secretary of defense for policy from 2005 to 2009. Franklin C. Miller served for three decades as a senior nuclear policy and arms control official in the Pentagon and on the National Security Council staff. He is a principal at the Scowcroft Group.