Warrior Maven

Why We Need ICBMs: Weapons of Mass Destruction That Keep the Peace

Russia and China are collectively building 12 new types of fixed and mobile land-based missiles of varying capability.

An Air Force Global Strike Command unarmed intercontinental ballistic missile launches during an operation test on February 23, 2021, at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. (Chris Okula via DVIDS)

Nearly three years ago, the Louisiana Tech Research Institute, LTRI, sponsored a book project that in late summer 2020 resulted in the publication of a compendium of essays on nuclear deterrence and modernization. The “Guide to Nuclear Deterrence in the Age of Great-Power Competition” brought together twenty-two authors who dissected the complex strategic environment and explain how credible nuclear capability is the bedrock of America’s defense. According to LTRI, “To be credible, America must compete as Russia and China modernize to challenge international norms. This thought-provoking book will answer the reader’s question, ‘why does nuclear deterrence matter to me?’”

Nuclear Deterrence

The idea was originally a joint project idea put forward by top nuclear expert Adam Lowther and this author with the idea of bringing together in one publication the best ideas and analysis in the nuclear arena. After its publication, some in the disarmament community claimed the book actually advocated fighting a nuclear war and complained that although the writers were all senior professionals in the strategic nuclear arena, graduate students and non-nuclear professionals should also have a say about nuclear policy.

Well, there is a reason we don’t ask graduate students to make decisions about nuclear deterrence. They lack judgment and usually have little knowledge of history, and often become adherents to very strange and daffy ideas such as a nuclear freeze or unilateral concessions as the best means of promoting strategic stability.

For example, an idea put forward by the Union of Concerned Scientist (UCS) book critique was that since land based ballistic missiles are going out favor in the arsenals of the world’s nuclear powers, the United States would lose nothing by unilaterally eliminating its own MMIII land based missiles and forgoing acquisition of the new Sentinel land based missile system currently slated to be deployed around the end this decade.

What in fact is the evidence for the UCS claim?

Russia and China are collectively building 12 new types of fixed and mobile land-based missiles of varying capability, to say nothing of the submarine launched and cruise missiles and bombers they are also building. India and Pakistan are both building land based ballistic missiles; and North Korea has just test fired a solid fueled land-based missile on top of its current deployment of liquid fueled land-based rockets. Iran although not yet a nuclear power has the largest arsenal of ballistic missiles in the Middle East; including land-based missiles of varying ranges, while China has tested more ballistic missiles in the last year than the rest of the world combined and is undertaking what the past two commanders of US Strategic Command have both described as “breath taking.”

A similar scheme was also proposed by Princeton Professor Frank von Hippel who advocates keeping MMIII for a few more years but forgoing Sentinel altogether. Von Hippel believed that if the US simply sustained its 53 year old MMIII ICBM force or a few more years but stops any plan to acquire a new ICBM force such as Sentinel, the Russian’s too will be compelled by our high moral and generous stance to follow suit and in a new arms deal, eliminate its own highly modernized ICBM force that constitutes roughly seventy percent of its strategic nuclear force allowed under the 2010 New START treaty between the US and Russia.

For some magical reason, the US would get Russia to trade its brand-new nuclear missiles for aging and becoming obsolete US Minuteman III missiles, knowing that at best the US is only going to do a short mini-life extension for Minuteman. That is as close to a fantasy as one can get.

Yes, as the USC article argued, there are new technologies including longer range conventional prompt global strike weapons of hypersonic speed that that are impacting USA global security concerns.

Nonetheless, American ICBMs are central to the US strategic nuclear deterrence which has to be maintained because while the Russians have around 2400 nuclear warheads constrained by the New START treaty, (when all deployed bomber weapons are included). But Moscow also has between 2000 and 5000 additional regional or theater ballistic missile warheads or munitions not constrained by the New Start treaty. And as nuclear expert James Howe has explained, Russia may have an additional five hundred missile warheads of various ranges that may be deployed by the middle of this decade on strategic long-range systems also not constrained by the New Start treaty.

The US would simply lack sufficient leverage to compel the Russians to also cut forces when it is the US that has unilaterally given up four hundred of the seven hundred (57%) strategic nuclear delivery vehicles allowed under New START without getting anything in return.

Now the rationale for getting rid of the US ICBM force has generally been based on the idea the Russians in a crisis could strike the US silo-based fixed missiles pre-emptively and take them out first. The USC analysis correctly understands that such a strike is not remotely possible.

But then the USC analysis falls for the idea some members of Congress have also put forward that for a considerable savings, the Minuteman III missile system can be cheaply extended for just a few years while we negotiate with the Russians a new arms deal. So, avoiding requiring the US to make unilateral concessions, the new idea pretends to be for maintaining the US Triad but knowing full well the ICBMs would still be rusting to obsolescence.

Here the facts are pretty clear. As the former commander of US Strategic Command Admiral Charles Richard explained, the Minuteman’s 50-year-old technology is simply not a candidate for further life extension.

It also makes no sense. Irrespective of whether we build a new missile, the entire system needs to be replaced. The new warheads need to be refurbished and life extended. The nuclear command and control and communications needs to be modernized as it does for the entire nuclear Triad. And the ICBM infrastructure including silos and launch control centers also needs to be upgraded.

Why would we invest in all these key elements, and then pair the new ICBM connected technology with an old ICBM technology missile that has to go out of service in a couple of years, because it cannot be sustained, especially when a more effective, less expensive, and more credible alternative, the Sentinel ICBM force, is under development?

A new Minuteman life extension would also not be a simple endeavor. Recent sustainment costs are already up seventeen percent, as most of the missile’s major technology components are no longer produced. While the modular capability of the new Sentinel will reduce personal costs for example by as much as seventy-five percent and the on-going repair time by as much as eighty percent, the current MMIII force cannot match those numbers, although heroic industry and USAF work has kept the MMIII force credible as we transition to Sentinel.

When the United States Air Force examined the alternatives, they assessed the long-term viability of the land-based leg of the triad out to 2075, just as the Navy looked at the survivability of the new Columbia close to that same date. (Parenthetically, with Sentinel lasting until around 2075, the research, development, and acquisition costs for the new ICBM Sentinel system requires a long-term investment of about $2 billion a year.)

The Air Force could have ignored the data and decided there was only a need for a short-term extension of Minuteman and forgo the costs of the new Sentinel and assume that Russia and Chinese missile threats could be negotiated away with a less than fully modernized US force.

Bu even, if possible, a life extension is hardly a viable alternative given the requirements laid out by the US Strategic Command to maintain the enduring deterrence requirements. Especially as the US for the first time in its history is facing two near peer nuclear armed and aggressive nations in Russia and China--both of whom are modernizing their nuclear deterrent forces at a pace not even seen during the height of the Cold War.

A US deterrent without an ICBM component is limited in its growth potential to little more than the current total force deployed by the US under the New START treaty or as Mark Schneider estimates about 1800 warheads.

Perhaps graduate students think that the way to deter our enemies is to arbitrarily conclude that the deterrent we have will no longer be necessary in just a couple of decades and that we can therefore unilaterally cut out nearly 60% of the strategic new current delivery vehicles we are allowed under New START.

And graduate students may also believe that with the remaining limited forces, the United States would be able to successfully negotiate away the Russians most formidable part of their nuclear forces, to wit their totally modern land-based ICBMs under the control of the Strategic Rocket Forces.

It is everyone’s fondest wish that the American lamb can peacefully lie down with the Russian and Chinese wolves. And that unilateral concessions might work to coax totalitarian powers to change their ways. But as David Trachtenberg has rightly argued in a 2022 National Institute of Public Policy report, there are no actual instances of such as outcome. Ben Franklin explained it well when he explained that while “Democracy is two wolves and a lamb deciding what to have for dinner,” “Liberty is a well-armed lamb." So too with deterrence. A well-armed America keeps the Russian and Chinese wolves at bay.  

Read in Warrior Maven.