Nuclear missile sites are scattered across the American heartland, like this ICBM launch site in Minot, N.D.

Nuclear missile sites are scattered across the American heartland, like this ICBM launch site in Minot, N.D. Charlie Riedel/AP

Welcome to America’s ‘Nuclear Sponge’

If ICBMs are meant to draw enemy missiles toward American soil, it’s time to rethink our nuclear strategy.

The United States currently deploys hundreds of nuclear missiles across Colorado, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, and Wyoming. Each missile carries a nuclear payload many times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb, capable of killing hundreds of thousands of people. The Pentagon is now planning to build a new, deadlier generation of these missiles, which are housed in underground silos.

But these intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs, are not meant to be launched, ever. Not even in a nuclear war. Their primary mission is to be destroyed in the ground, along with all the people that live anywhere near them. Their main purpose is to “absorb” a nuclear attack from Russia, acting as a giant “nuclear sponge.” Such is the twisted logic of atomic warfare.

But it never made sense to draw a nuclear attack toward the United States, rather than away from it. Even during the Cold War, analysts challenged this plan, claiming it was “madness to use United States real estate as ‘a great sponge to absorb’ Soviet nuclear weapons.”

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Yet the nuclear sponge is still with us. Not only that, the Trump administration is planning to spend $100 billion to do it all over again.

Newly minted Defense Secretary Jim Mattis defended the ICBM and the nuclear sponge mission, although he did not call it that. Testifying before the Senate on Jan. 12, Mattis said, “It’s clear they are so buried out in the central U.S. that any enemy that wants to take us on is going to have to commit two, three, four weapons to make sure they take each one out. In other words, the ICBM force provides a cost-imposing strategy on an adversary.”

Related: Making America’s ICBMs Great Again

And: Despite Objections, Pentagon Takes Step Toward Buying New Nuclear Weapons

Cost-imposing for whom? Yes, attacking U.S. ICBMs would be very costly for Russia, mainly because the United States would retaliate with hundreds of nuclear weapons launched from submarines at sea. But what about the costs to Colorado, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, and Wyoming? Of course we want to prevent nuclear war, but do we need to throw the upper Midwest under the bus to do it?

No, we do not. In fact, the five ICBM states and the entire country would be better off if we did not have ICBMs at all. They are expensive, redundant, and above all, dangerous.

The United States can safely phase out the existing ICBMs without replacing them. This would save a boatload of money and take the missile states out of the crosshairs. And, as former Defense Secretary Bill Perry has written, it would also address the concern that ICBMs “could trigger an accidental nuclear war.”

Last year, before he became defense secretary, Mattis asked if it was time to remove the land-based missiles, as “This would reduce the false alarm danger.” 

What are Perry and Mattis talking about? Nothing less than a nuclear nightmare, in which atomic weapons are used by mistake.

U.S. land-based missiles are highly vulnerable. They sit out in the open and everyone, including Vladimir Putin, knows exactly where they are. So if Russia attacks them (no other country could), President Trump has only two options: launch the missiles before the attack arrives (and destroy Russia), or wait and let them be destroyed in the ground. Either way, Colorado, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, and Wyoming are toast.

But here is the rub: President Trump would have about 10 minutes to make this fate-of-the-world decision. And the only sane decision is not to launch. Why? Because there is no way to know for sure (and you want to be sure) that the feared Russian attack is real.

There have been at least three false alarms in the United States that could have led to a mistaken nuclear war. Forty years ago, Perry himself was awakened in the middle of the night and told that Pentagon computers were showing 200 ICBMs on their way from the Soviet Union. Luckily, it was not the end of the world, but just a computer glitch.

How would President Trump respond if he were told at 3 a.m. that hundreds of Russian nuclear missiles were landing in minutes? Would he have the temperament to realize that it could be a false alarm, or would he impulsively launch a counter attack? No one else has the authority to make this call, and once the missiles fly they cannot be called back.

It is shocking that senior officials in the nuclear weapons business do not take the risk of false alarms seriously. They reassure us that the chance of a false alarm is “at an all-time low” and that “the statistical probability that the United States would launch ICBMs as a result of a false alarm is close to zero.” Such language is dangerously irresponsible. One can imagine the same bromides being used before the Titanic sank or the Space Shuttle exploded.

The honest truth is that the probability is low but not zero. And the consequences would be astronomical. When it comes to nuclear weapons, it only takes one. Human errors and machine errors do occur. It is only a matter of time before the odds add up to a catastrophic failure. As Perry writes, “we do not have to take that terrible risk anymore. We should not rebuild our ICBM arsenal.”

Moreover, ICBMs are redundant. The United States is rebuilding its nuclear-armed submarines that can hide under the oceans, able to survive a Russian nuclear attack. That is all we need to keep Moscow in check. In the unlikely event that new threats emerge that could put the subs at risk, the Air Force is rebuilding the insurance policy: nuclear-capable bombers. The ICBMs are an extra insurance policy that we can do without.

Which brings us back to Colorado, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, and Wyoming. There is no good reason why these fine states should have a larger nuclear target on them than other states. It’s time to get rid of ICBMs, and throw away the nuclear sponge.