An unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile, equipped with a test reentry vehicle, is launched during an operational test at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., Feb. 25, 2016.

An unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile, equipped with a test reentry vehicle, is launched during an operational test at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., Feb. 25, 2016. DoD

No ICBMs? Big Problems

We must dispel the unfounded fears of false alarms, place the cost in context, and seriously consider the unpleasant consequences of eliminating ICBMs from the U.S. nuclear force.

It has been a while since the United States first placed its current intercontinental ballistic missile, the Minuteman III, in its hardened silos deep underground. In fact, it was first deployed in 1970 – back when Richard Nixon was president, vinyl LPs ruled, and the internet was still 13 years away. Times have changed, and U.S. engineers have kept the Minuteman III ICBM ready through multiple life-extension programs, but there is only so much capability you can squeeze out of an old missile before replacement becomes necessary. 

Normally, people would not be surprised that the United States wants to replace 50-year-old missiles, especially when – in a rare display of bipartisan agreement – the Obama administration began the replacement effort and the Trump administration carried it forward. But a small group of analysts and former officials, who have the ears of key U.S. senators, not only oppose the replacement missile, the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent, or GBSD, but also seek to eliminate ICBMs altogether. 

No U.S. defense program is so sacred as to defy questions about its mission and capabilities, and GBSD is no exception, but the criticisms leveled against ICBMs in recent years typically take place in a vacuum of academic debate without regard to real-world consequences. These consequences deserve to be just as much part of the debate on the need for ICBMs, but first let us examine the two main criticisms of ICBMs: fears of false alarms and cost. 

Some critics’ fears of false alarms grow out of the fact that U.S. ICBMs are not mobile, that they sit in known locations, and that they can essentially survive everything but a direct nuclear strike. The unfounded worry is that through some (never-defined) glitch in U.S. sensor systems, or human error, U.S. officials could falsely believe a massive Russian nuclear attack on U.S. ICBMs is underway, at which point the President would accidentally start a global nuclear war by trying to “save” U.S. ICBMs and launching them at Russia before they are destroyed in their silos. Even though ICBMs were not the cause of the false alarm in this scenario, the critics’ prescription is to eliminate them anyway; but there is a major problem with such an approach. 

Given the abundance of U.S. ground- and space-based sensors, the extensive training their operators receive, and the prevalence of safeguards in the system – the chances of every kind of modern sensor and human operators all making the same specific type of error, and that error going uncorrected all the way to the President, approaches the same level of probability that we find Elvis and Sasquatch on the same day. Critics will point to previous incidents where the U.S. military received false or misinterpreted data that then led to increased U.S. nuclear force readiness. But this is a far cry from the data that would be needed to present the president today the option of launching ICBMs while under supposed attack. Again, the U.S. nuclear sensor and command-and-control systems prioritize surety over speed for decision-makers, and it is because the United States has a triad of nuclear systems that the president need not feel pressured into trying to “save” ICBMs from attack.

For the critics’ worst-case scenario to be a true possibility, U.S. ground- and space-based sensors and their operators would have to agree (a process called “dual phenomenology”) that they are seeing the same event – a massive Russian nuclear strike that likely has a very specific profile of how it would look. It is beyond a stretch to believe that sensors and operators would produce and interpret respectively the same erroneous data that matches exactly the profile of a Russian nuclear strike against U.S. ICBMs. 

The second major reason some critics oppose GBSD, and ICBMs in general, is the cost, reported to be $264 billion – though critics often forget to mention this is the lifetime cost as it operates through the year 2075. On average then, GBSD’s budget total each year will make up less than one percent of the annual Department of Defense budget. In addition, U.S. ICBMs are the least costly leg of the U.S. nuclear triad — after submarines and bombers — to operate, maintain, and modernize. As the Congressional Budget Office explains in its report, U.S. ICBMs cost the Departments of Defense and Energy about $2 billion annually to operate and maintain, while bombers cost about $3 billion annually and strategic submarines cost about $4 billion annually. 

Importantly, the GBSD program will not only replace the ICBM, but also refurbish the launch control centers where its officers operate, improve cybersecurity, and reduce maintenance costs. The missile itself will also feature a modular architecture that can presumably incorporate new technologies or countermeasures to help the re-entry vehicles survive the threat environment in 2075, possibly obviating the need for costly modifications to the missile itself. ICBMs that provide these characteristics, when combined with the low annual cost, makes GBSD a good value for the dollar investment. 

It is worth briefly considering the consequences, however, of eliminating ICBMs as some critics wish. As I explain in more detail in my recently published paper, eliminating ICBMs would leave the United States with five military bases that can support nuclear forces: two for submarines and three for bombers. An adversary could conceivably attack some or all of these bases using only conventional weapons and possibly disable a significant portion of the U.S. nuclear force without crossing the threshold of nuclear use. Placing such an important fraction of U.S. nuclear forces at risk could present a darkly tempting opportunity for an adversary looking to coerce the United States. 

Eliminating ICBMs would also pose additional problems like decreased resilience in the face of peacetime accidents (stuff happens) and the increased investments adversaries would likely make in defeating the remaining two legs of the nuclear triad. U.S. allies and partners would may also consider obtaining their own nuclear weapons in the wake of what they would see as a bizarre U.S. policy of unilateral restraint, especially when contrasted with their neighbors, Moscow, Beijing, and Pyongyang doubling down on modernizing their land-based ICBMs. 

After dispelling unfounded fears of false alarms, placing the question of cost in context, and seriously considering the unpleasant consequences of eliminating ICBMs from the U.S. nuclear force, the U.S. decision to proceed with GBSD appears well founded. ICBMs cannot do everything, but they are essential to the most important thing: deterring nuclear war.

Matthew R. Costlow is a Senior Analyst at the National Institute for Public Policy. He is author of “Safety in Diversity: The Strategic Value of ICBMs and GBSD in the Nuclear Triad.” 

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