The U.S. Air Force is in a bit of a slump. Leaders of the nuclear missile force were caught on drunken benders in Moscow and using counterfeit poker chips in Iowa casinos. The officer corps has been rocked by a cheating scandal and a 60 Minutes investigation of its missile silos. The Air Force’s image is so bad that the missileers are the brunt of jokes on late night TV.
Now, the Air Force may want to take its nuclear missile show on the road. Literally.
In September, Lt. Gen. James Kowalski, vice commander of U.S. Strategic Command, which oversees the military’s nuclear forces, said that the Air Force favors a new system to replace the current Minuteman III nuclear-armed missiles, and hinted that it could eventually be based on a mobile platform. This, to put it mildly, is a non-starter. Dead on arrival. Failure to launch. If the United States did not need a mobile intercontinental ballistic missile, or ICBM, during the Cold War, why would it need one now?
A recent RAND study—sponsored by the Air Force—found that buying a new ICBM “will very likely cost almost two times—and perhaps even three times—more” than simply maintaining the current one. A new mobile ICBM could cost up to $200 billion, RAND said, and would be hard to justify.
At a time of competing priorities—think Ebola, the Islamic State group and conventional forces—budget concerns alone should have warned the Pentagon off a new ICBM. After all, the Navy is billions behind in its shipbuilding, the Army is shrinking to pre-World War II levels, and the F-35 fighter continues to break the Air Force.
But budget pressures are only half of the story. We have seen this movie before, and it ends badly.
Thirty-five years ago, back in the bad old days of the Cold War, the Air Force wanted to make its new MX “Peacekeeper” missiles mobile. The scheme envisaged 200 truck-launched missiles and 4,600 “hardened” shelters spread around Utah and Nevada. For each actual MX missile, there would be 22 decoys, imitating the weight, balance and electromagnetic properties of the real thing. The trucks would drive from shelter to shelter on a “racetrack” so that the Soviets couldn’t target the real weapon. President Jimmy Carter approved the plan in 1980, with a price of about $95 billion in today’s dollars.
Not surprisingly, the general public objected to more nukes in its backyard. Robert List, Republican governor of Nevada at the time, said, “We feel very clearly it would just turn our landscape and lifestyle upside down.” President Ronald Reagan canceled the shelter system in 1981, calling it “a Rube Goldberg scheme.” Later plans to deploy the missiles on railcars fared no better, and the MX was ultimately placed in fixed silos in the ground.
But the mobility dream lived on in the form of the Midgetman missile and the “hard” mobile launcher. The Midgetman, which began development in 1984, was small enough to fit on civilian roads. However, the truck launchers alone would have cost about $50 billion in today’s dollars, not counting the missiles. The end of the Cold War ultimately doomed the idea.
The lesson here is that mobile ICBMs did not make the cut during the largest nuclear arms buildup in history. It is therefore surprising that now, with the Cold War long over and the Pentagon facing major budget constraints, the Air Force would even consider the concept. Who are they kidding?
(Read More: This Is a Pivotal Moment for the US Nuclear Arsenal)
First, it’s clear that America cannot afford to upgrade the nuclear arsenal as planned, which could cost as much as $1 trillion. Frank Klotz, head of the National Nuclear Security Administration, or NNSA, told Reuters that, “The bill is coming due, and it’s a huge bill.” A bipartisan, independent report commissioned by the Defense Department recently called the plans “unaffordable” and a threat to “needed improvements in conventional forces.” The $200 billion it would cost to build a mobile ICBM does not exist.
Second, Americans are not going to tolerate nuclear missiles driving through their backyards anymore than they did 30 years ago. NNSA’s less-than-stellar record of drunk driving and crashing trucks carrying warheads would seem to justify their concerns. American’s wouldn’t even allow nuclear waste to pass through their towns to store at Yucca Mountain.
Third, with the Soviet Union relegated to history, its unclear why the Obama administration is recapitalizing the nuclear arsenal as though it is still 1985. U.S. nuclear weapons are no longer relevant to the highest priority threat we face, and the Pentagon should stop funding them as if they were.
The only way the Air Force gets out of this budgetary tailspin is by proposing reasonable plans that reflect current global realities. By pushing for new nuclear missiles—in the ground, on trucks or on trains—the Air Force leadership is only reinforcing the impression that it is living in the past.