An unarmed Minuteman III, the current version of the ICBM, launches during a developmental test at 12:33 a.m. Pacific Time Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2020, at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif

An unarmed Minuteman III, the current version of the ICBM, launches during a developmental test at 12:33 a.m. Pacific Time Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2020, at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif U.S. Air Force / Senior Airman Clayton Wear

Why We Need a New ICBM

The arguments for keeping a nuclear triad.

America’s intercontinental ballistic missile force is fading. 400 Minuteman IIIs — the remnant of a fleet deployed in the 1970s — will by mid-decade need too much maintenance to threaten the largest strikes contemplated by deterrence strategists. Refurbishing these aging missiles would cost more than replacing them, so the Air Force has given Northrop Grumman a $13.3 billion contract for the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent, a new ICBM that might cost nearly $100 billion.

The GBSD program has its fair share of critics. Arms control advocates question whether the Air Force needs to replace the current ICBM fleet at all. Some prefer to just upgrade the Minuteman III, while others would rid the United States of ICBMs altogether. Stealthy Ohio-class submarines, whose own replacements are on their way, carry more than twice as many warheads as the current Minuteman fleet, while bombers bearing cruise missiles offer the flexibility of taking off without committing to delivery. Isn’t this deterrence enough?

Sadly, no. New technology and enemy efforts are likely to end the missile submarine’s half-century of invulnerability, while advanced air defenses have already reduced U.S. bombers’ ability to strike. ICBMs remain key to effective nuclear deterrence, and fortunately, GBSD is far cheaper than extending the Minuteman. Even better, its acquisition gives arms control advocates an effective bargaining chip in any future negotiations over eliminating ICBMs. After all, if Russia or China held an absolute strategic advantage with their modernized ICBMs versus America’s obsolete Minuteman, why would they cede it?

Arms control negotiations and nuclear modernization are not mutually exclusive. If tensions with Russia and China cool, perhaps the United States and its adversaries will find it beneficial to reduce the number of ICBMs via a mutually beneficial and verifiable agreement. However, the United States cannot afford to mortgage the security of its citizens and allies on hope, particularly when Russia and China intend to challenge the United States. GBSD offers the best of both worlds in that it maintains deterrence at the most efficient price.

A failure to modernize the ICBM fleet would leave the United States vulnerable as its adversaries reinforce their nuclear triads. Russia committed to updating its triad in 2018, and China is feverishly working to bring its nuclear submarines and bombers to a level commensurate with U.S. forces. Especially given the uncertain future facing New START – the 2010 U.S.-Russia nuclear arms reduction treaty set to expire in February 2021 – and America’s increasingly fraught relations with Beijing and Moscow, GBSD is critical to deterrence and fiscal responsibility. 

Arguments that the United States could make do a nuclear “dyad” underestimate America’s adversaries and overstates the ability of U.S. bombers and submarines to deter a nuclear conflict without ICBM support. As it stands, Russian and Chinese nuclear modernization plans already seek to overcome America’s present military superiority. Russia, for example, has committed 5 percent of its “2027 military vision” budget to procure 300 additional ICBMs and sub-launched ballistic missiles, enough to overcome any missile defenses the United States might install. 

China has also rapidly expanded its nuclear arsenal, most notably by developing the DF-41 mobile ICBM, the JL-3 sub-launched ballistic missile, and a stealth bomber. Beijing has shown no interest in arms control measures that might bring transparency to its nuclear capabilities and programs. There is also increasing evidence that China seeks to equal, if not surpass, U.S. nuclear capabilities. 

China’s desire to surpass the United States on a global scale is no joke, and assessing Beijing’s true nuclear capacity is impossible without an arms agreement. Even if China does not currently have the ability to strike 400 American ICBM sites (as Russia does), the United States must assume that is China’s eventual goal. China’s official language has already evolved from maintaining a minimum deterrent to seeking “nuclear capabilities at the minimum level required for maintaining its national security.” The Defense Intelligence Agency also stated last year that Beijing is likely to more than double its stockpile in the next decade. These actions, and the bellicose language of Premier Xi Jinping, imply that China will inevitably bring its forces to a level commensurate with Russia’s. 

Moving to a dyad or delaying the deployment of GBSD would leave the United States at a severe strategic disadvantage. Hopes that Russia might voluntarily limit its stockpile seem overly optimistic, and China would welcome the U.S. adoption of such a self-imposed restriction. The risk of conflict with either state would increase, as confidence in their nuclear advantage might embolden aggression in Eastern Europe or the Pacific. The elimination of any triad component risks making a first-strike strategy conceivable for Russia or China, heightening the odds of a limited conflict turning into a massive nuclear exchange. 

Nuclear modernization is not cheap, but according to Air Force leadership, it has a high “value-proposition” because it deters aggression and reassures vulnerable allies. In other words, while the cost of a nuclear triad is significant, it pales in consideration to the costs of losing deterrence. If the United States resorted to a dyad, China and Russia would maintain their arsenals, while America’s allies, worried about the U.S. nuclear umbrella, might restart their individual nuclear weapons programs. South Korea and other nations have all considered building nuclear weapons in the past as a bulwark against the perceived uncertainty of U.S. commitments.

These realities persuaded former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis to accept the triad, as he personally explained in his introduction to the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review. The triad works because each leg provides unique capabilities, and each leg covers the others’ vulnerabilities. 

Underscoring the triad’s redundancy are common misconceptions about the invulnerability of U.S. submarines. Sub-launched ballistic missiles, to put it bluntly, are not necessarily as survivable as some believe. Without U.S. ICBMs, Russia or China could employ a first-strike tactic without fear of reprisal should they be able to locate U.S. nuclear submarines beforehand. Just as the United States planned to slip attack subs into the North Sea to hunt Russian boomers during the Cold War, Russia or China will undoubtedly seek to mitigate SLBMs should tensions spike. Russia has already proven its ability to move modern attack submarines undetected into the Atlantic, and detection technologies, while not necessarily mature today, are always evolving. Either way, U.S. strategists underestimate our adversaries if they do not think every effort will be made to locate American submarines. Even the ability to locate the general location of a submarine would allow Russia or China, freed from the constraint of defeating ICBMs, to attack American submarines with multiple nuclear strikes over a large oceanic area. 

Of course, bombers would still scramble in such a scenario, but they are increasingly vulnerable before takeoff due to hypersonics and sea-launched weapons near the U.S. coast. Going up against enemy triads and advanced anti-access and area-denial systems, U.S. bombers would hardly be an effective deterrent on their own. The deterrence provided by the triad exists because it allows, during the course of a devastating nuclear conflict, the United States to lose one or two legs and remain strategically viable. If the United States relied on a dyad, that sustainability would be alarmingly fleeting. 

Communications are also an important component of the existing triad. Submarines face multiple issues staying in contact with leadership while also remaining stealthy, and bomber communications can be jammed or compromised. A large part of the triad’s deterrent value lies in that fact that under any practical circumstance, any adversary cannot prevent U.S. national leadership from communicating with ICBM operators. The systems are incredibly redundant. 

Disregarding the differences in response times between submarines and ICBMs really gets to the core of pro-dyad arguments, or even fears that a “use it or lose it” mentality would risk unnecessary escalation. Betting on the invulnerability of submarines implies either a belief that a nuclear war will never occur or that an adversary will not be willing to risk absorbing a nuclear strike to win a major conflict. This is a significant assumption. Relying on a dyad accepts that an ICBM-armed adversary will never take advantage of its nuclear superiority in a major conflict that threatens the survivability of its regime. It also accepts that if an adversary crosses the nuclear threshold, the best the United States could hope to do is respond, and only then if the enemy was not able to mitigate American submarines. Winning a nuclear war, however grim that aftermath might be, would be out of the question. 

ICBMs are the key to nuclear deterrence: They guarantee that no adversary can attack the United States without inviting a massive nuclear response, and their redundant safeguards ensure that an accidental launch cannot occur. These separate sites would also be critical in a major nuclear conflict because they complicate adversary targeting and force them to consider expending hundreds of nuclear weapons that otherwise might target U.S. forces (submarines and bomber bases in particular), allies, or population centers. 

ICBMs, despite the fears of some, are not on a “hair-trigger” alert. They are not recallable after launch, but there is no way to employ an ICBM without presidential orders and a thorough verification process. While it is true that ICBMs are frighteningly responsive given authorization, the missiles are targeted against open oceans on a daily basis. Targeting the missiles would occur on the lower rungs of an escalation ladder, in which case, the de-escalating deterrent value of ICBMs would balance any concerns about rushed strategic decisions. It is the existence of ICBMs, on both sides of a conflict, that prevents national leaders from acting too rashly in highly chaotic situations. 

Therefore, given the political and strategic realities surrounding the nuclear triad, funding GBSD is critical. The Air Force has extensively used digital engineering to save money on designing GBSD, and its hardware is purposefully flexible to accommodate future upgrades well into the 2070s. The program is purposefully efficient: Nuclear modernization will account for, at its highest point, only 3.7 percent of the Defense Department’s budget. Particularly as the deficit skyrockets, acting now provides a significant financial advantage over attempting to extend the MMIII. The cost is not inconsequential – $85 billion to $100 billion over 20 years – but that is still far cheaper than essentially rebuilding an ICBM that was originally intended to last only 10 years. 

We all yearn for a day when nuclear weapons are not needed, but until that day comes, it defies logic not to make the triad as fiscally efficient as possible without sacrificing effectiveness and nuclear deterrence. 

Maj. Shane Praiswater is a visiting military analyst at the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a Ph.D. student at Pepperdine University. Views expressed or implied in this commentary are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Air Force, the Defense Department, or any other government agency.