“God fights on the side with the best artillery.” — Napoleon
In our age of nuclear weapons and strategy, nuclear wars are fought in the imagination and calculated in nuclear exchange models. Nuclear capabilities influence profoundly the geostrategic chessboard — and if used, could win or lose the world in 30 minutes.
Today the “best artillery” is the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). In theory, the ICBM is a near-mathematical constant; in reality, it’s operationally ever-ready.
STRATCOM Commander, Adm. Charles Richard and many other current and former senior Department of Defense (DOD) officials are desperate to make Congress, the media and the public understand that ICBMs are indispensable to the U.S. nuclear deterrent.
At issue is whether funding will continue for a new ICBM — the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) — to replace the nearly obsolete U.S. ICBM force that is composed of 400 Minuteman IIIs, now 50 years old and originally designed for a service life of 10 years.
The GBSD won’t be ready for deployment until 2029. STRATCOM is already hard-pressed to keep the Minuteman III operational, scrounging for spare parts that are no longer manufactured or were made by manufacturers who no longer exist.
This crisis in the U.S. nuclear deterrent is a golden opportunity for the Biden administration and congressional allies to eliminate U.S. ICBMs, perhaps at low political cost, merely by defunding or underfunding the GBSD while the Minuteman III turns into junk. A Minuteman III “life extension program” really would amount to unilateral elimination of U.S. ICBMs in their silos, which would become a missile junkyard, not a truly operational ICBM force.
The Biden administration is filling key roles in the National Security Council, Defense Department and National Nuclear Security Administration with anti-nuclear activists, or affiliated individuals who are dedicated to reducing U.S. reliance on nuclear deterrence.
The Democratic and Republican consensus on maintaining a nuclear deterrent that is “second to none” — including a credible ICBM force — won the Cold War but is now history, polarizing toward anti-nuclear theories about minimum deterrence that would have lost the Cold War.
Anti-ICBM politicians and activists see the greatest virtue of ICBMs — over 95 percent always on high alert, every day, for years, serving as sentinels against surprise attack — as the very reason to abolish them. They falsely allege these are on a “hair trigger” for accidental nuclear war.
Yet no ICBM ever has been fired accidentally. In addition to numerous redundant safeguards preventing accidental launch, U.S. ICBMs are “de-targeted” — that is, aimed at broad ocean areas — but can be quickly re-targeted against adversaries if necessary.
The U.S. even has “de-MIRVed” its ICBMS — the nosecones have multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles — to only one warhead, not multiple warheads like those of Russia, China, and soon probably North Korea, that are optimized for striking first to disarm the U.S. nuclear deterrent by surprise attack.
For example, Russia’s SS-18 and China’s DF-41 ICBMs carry 10 MIRVed warheads, so just 50 missiles could deliver 500 warheads in 30 minutes, attacking all U.S. ICBM silos, bomber bases, submarine ports and other military targets. Russia’s new Satan II ICBM can carry up to 40 warheads.
Since Russia, China and North Korea favor ICBMs — and fear them most — is it wise to eliminate the best U.S. nuclear deterrent? Isn’t abolishing ICBMs more dangerous than modernizing U.S. missiles that helped keep nuclear peace for 60 years?
If U.S. ICBMs are eliminated, potential adversaries no longer have to achieve a coordinated, accurate, disarming nuclear first strike against 400 hardened ICBM silos. Isn’t greatly simplifying adversary capabilities to execute a surprise attack riskier than modernizing U.S. ICBMs designed to deter surprise attack?
If U.S ICBMs are eliminated, Russia, China or North Korea could destroy all U.S. strategic bombers, which are no longer maintained on strip-alert, by attacking just three bomber bases. Isn’t enabling such an enormous temptation to our aggressive adversaries unacceptably risky?
If U.S. ICBMs are eliminated, Russia, China or North Korea could destroy two-thirds of the 14 U.S. ballistic missile submarines normally berthed by attacking just two SSBN ports. Isn’t making U.S. missile submarines much easier targets for surprise attack unacceptably risky?
Isn’t reducing U.S. nuclear targets from over 400 to just five — three bomber bases and two SSBN ports — unacceptably risky and likely to greatly increase, through adversary or U.S. miscalculation, a possible accidental nuclear war?
If U.S. ICBMs are eliminated, in a crisis or conflict, U.S. nuclear deterrence will depend upon mobilizing bombers and SSBNs, requiring several days. This would be highly visible to adversaries. Isn’t bomber and SSBN mobilization riskier than modernizing U.S. ICBMs that are designed to be ever-ready?
Isn’t relying for nuclear deterrence exclusively on bombers and SSBNs — which can be destroyed by conventional cruise and anti-ship missiles available even to Iran — riskier than modernizing U.S. ICBMs?
The answer to all these questions is yes. The U.S. should accelerate production and deployment of the GBSD — and please call it Minuteman IV.
Dr. Peter Vincent Pry is Executive Director of the Task Force on National and Homeland Security, served as Chief of Staff of the Congressional EMP Commission, and on the staffs of the House Armed Services Committee and the CIA. He has authored numerous books and articles on EMP and Cyber Warfare.