The Cold War is over. And so is the need for America’s land-based Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles. Not only are the costs of maintaining 450 Minuteman-III missiles unsustainable, keeping them in the nuclear arsenal is hardly practical. Maintaining hundreds of outdated, budget-draining Minuteman-IIIs when the Pentagon has the more accurate, multi-dimensional Trident II that can be shot from Ohio-class submarines that are virtually undetectable makes little sense.
It’s already estimated that modernizing America’s nuclear stockpile will cost taxpayers more than $1 trillion over 30 years. The U.S. Air Force wants to replace the current land-based ICBM force with newer missiles that are estimated to cost more than $100 billion, which is 60 percent greater than the figure the Defense Department set last summer.
But scrapping the Minuteman-III will not only save money, it will show Russia, and other emerging nuclear powers like India and Pakistan that America is serious about non-proliferation. From both a financial, tactical and leadership standpoint, America and the rest of the world will be better off if Washington puts aside its political posturing and kill the land-based leg of its nuclear triad—the land, air and sea-based platforms America uses to launch its nuclear weapons.
The idea would be met with fierce opposition, some of which would be understandable. Washington has long struggled to reign in North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and Pyongyang’s ICBM test on the Fourth of July wasn’t encouraging.
Former President Barack Obama was a vocal advocate of denuclearization early on in his presidency, but Congress never supported his efforts. The Kremlin certainly didn’t make Obama’s efforts easier by modernizing its own nuclear weapons program and violating New START.
None of this is enough to justify keeping the Minuteman-III stockpile.
If the Trump administration approached nuclear defense with a sober, non-partisan outlook, it would realize that land-based ICBMs are nothing more than dated, hollow symbols of American security that don’t offer the nuclear deterrent protection their advocates claim.
One could argue that the U.S. should get rid of all its nukes, and indeed that would be the outcome in a perfect world. But until the United States and Russia negotiate a major nuclear weapons reduction, Washington still needs to maintain a powerful arsenal. Modernizing the weapons we do have is essential for maintenance issues alone.
That said, America could get rid of many of them, starting with all of the Minuteman-III silos located in Montana, North Dakota and Wyoming.
On a functional level, there is nothing a Minuteman-III can do that an Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missile (SLBM) can’t. If we compare the SLBM Trident II with the ICBM Minuteman-III, it is fairly easy to see why keeping both makes little sense.
The U.S. Navy currently has 18 Ohio-class submarines in its fleet, 14 of which are each capable of carrying 28 Trident IIs. One Trident has eight thermonuclear Multiple Independently Targetable Re-entry Vehicles, each carrying a 100- or 475-kiloton nuclear warhead.
Once fired, the Trident II would travel towards its target at speeds of 17,500 mph before splitting into eight reentry vehicles. One silo of Trident IIs from one Ohio-class sub could rain up to 192 warheads on a target, easily taking out 24 cites. A horrifying thought, but undoubtedly effective.
Phillp Coyle, a Senior Science Fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, said that besides the Trident’s better guidance system that improves accuracy, they are constantly being built and improved upon.
“If you give anyone in the military a choice between a Minuteman and a Trident, they would take the Trident,” he said.
To put the power of the Trident II in context, the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki (one of which was ironically nicknamed the “Little Boy”) had a yield of 15 kilotons and 20 kilotons of TNT, according to Live Science.
Let’s say that President Donald Trump gives the OK to nuke Russia (unlikely for various reasons, I know, but go with me here) and the U.S. Navy fires every single missile from its Ohio-class subs; it would only take one minute to fire them. Moscow would have to figure out a way to stop the onslaught. The problem is that they couldn’t. No one could.
Moreover, the Ohio-class subs carrying these civilization-killers are almost impossible to detect unless they surface. In 2009, the French submarine Triomphant and the United Kingdom’s HMS Vanguard crashed into each other. Neither of the crews made a mistake. The cause was the advanced deep-water submarine stealth technology, as The National Interest reports:
While an attack submarine is always on the lookout for other ships and submarines and often seeks to shadow those of foreign nations, a ballistic missile submarine just wants to be left alone and undetected under the ocean. Such submarines serve as a stealthy guarantor that any deadly attack on a home country could be reciprocated with a nuclear strike from a submarine-launched ballistic missile launched from underwater.
While a hypothetical aggressor might hope to take out a nation’s ground and air-based nuclear forces with a preemptive strike, submarines concealed deep underwater across the globe would be impossible to reliably track down and destroy—at least not all of them, and only as long as they don’t broadcast their presence.
However, one might think that two submarines passing close enough to scratch each other’s backs should be able to detect each other’s presence. However, modern subs have become very quiet, benefiting from tear-drop-shaped hulls, superior propellers and sound-absorbing anechoic tiles, among other technologies.
“They’re so hard to track,” David Wright, Co-Director of the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said. “Other nations don’t know where they are. And they can also launch their missiles from anywhere in the wide ocean whereas the ICBMs are fixed, well-known sites that have been there for decades. America’s adversaries know exactly where they are and if they want to attack them with very large nuclear weapons, even though they’re in harden silos, they could do that and be sure of hitting them.”
So why the need for ICBMs if half of America’s nuclear arsenal can travel deep in the ocean virtually undetected? Some arms experts, like Tom Nichols and Dana Struckman, argue the deterrence effect of land-based ICBMs is severely under-estimated. In a co-authored column in The National Interest last year, Struckman and Nichols argued that Minuteman-IIIs are too valuable a deterrent to scrap:
Moreover, if the ICBM force were targeted, the United States would still be able to attack, with great speed and precision, not only the remaining enemy strategic force but important parts of enemy military infrastructure. Russia or China would then be the ones to face the fateful decision to attack cities, a situation they will inevitably bring on themselves the moment they initiate the conflict—which is exactly the realization that should deter them in the first place.
It’s a fair point, but one that over-estimates the Minuteman-IIIs’ geopolitical importance. The argument also doesn’t consider the rapid improvement of the Trident II that’s designed to phase out land-based ICBMs in the first place.
During the Cold War, it was quite logical to invest in ICBMs because America’s submarine nuclear strike capability had not reached the operational capacity needed for intercontinental striking needs. The Trident I that was deployed in 1979, for example, had an operational range of 4,600 miles, which was proceeded by the UGM-73 Poseidon that had an operational range of 2,500 miles. Neither missile remotely had the kind of accuracy they do today, or the updated Ohio-class submarines.
Speaking of updated submarines, the Navy is designing the new Columbia-class submarine that will be even more terrifying than the current Ohio-class. This is a good use of federal dollars, not spending billions of a leg of the triad whose deterrence justification died with the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The Congressional Budget Office wrote in 2015 that it will cost $26 billion to maintain the Minuteman-III stockpile over a 10-year period, which is $3 billion more than the 2013 estimate. The U.S. Navy is calling for the entire land-based ICBM force to be replaced with new Minuteman-IIIs.
The service, which is fielding vendors, says the new generation of ICBMs will last well beyond 2070— at a cost of at least $100 billion. In 2014, RAND published a report stating that new Minuteman-IIIs will cost “almost two times—and perhaps even three times—more than incremental modernization of the current Minuteman III system.”
All of this for a leg of the triad that is tactically obsolete.
Wright says the best way to deal with the aging Minuteman-IIIs and ease concerns of skeptics who still want to keep the land-based ICBMs is to continue modernizing them until they can be retired and dismantled. Or usable parts, like its engines, can be used for satellites and other civilian or military purposes.
“Or you can say we’re just going to keep some of the silos around and, if we have to, we can take Tridents, put them in canisters and lower the canisters into the silos,” he said. “If you’re worried about the vulnerability of the submarines, it doesn’t matter if you have a Minuteman or a Trident in the silo.”
Another problem building a new generation of nuclear Minuteman-IIIs is that they may trigger a new arms race, as former Defense Secretary William Perry wrote in the New York Times last year. Or, more critically, one miscalculation could trigger a nuclear war by mistake:
If our sensors indicate that enemy missiles are en route to the United States, the president would have to consider launching ICBMs before the enemy missiles could destroy them; once they are launched, they cannot be recalled. The president would have less than 30 minutes to make that terrible decision.
This is not an academic concern. While the probability of an accidental launch is low, human and machine errors do occur. I experienced a false alarm nearly 40 years ago, when I was under secretary of defense for research and engineering. I was awakened in the middle of the night and told that some Defense Department computers were showing 200 ICBMs on the way from the Soviet Union. For one horrifying moment I thought it was the end of civilization. Then the general on the phone explained that it was a false alarm.
You can call back a bomber pilot or submarine, but you can’t call back an ICBM.
The best bet is to let the current ICBM stockpile age out and dismantle them. Recycle any salvageable parts for other uses and save the American taxpayers a few billion bucks.
Politically, there’s an argument for pouring cold water on any talk of eliminating a leg of the triad. Namely, Russian President Vladimir Putin.
He’s bullying his neighbors in Eastern Europe and spending billions of rubles modernizing and expanding its own nuclear weapons arsenal. And earlier this year, Russia deployed a new kind of cruise missile Pentagon officials call the SSC-X-8 that violates a 1987 arms control treaty.
It doesn’t help that NATO, an alliance he loathes, surrounds most of the western border of Russia. Ukraine and Georgia are making promising gains in securing membership in the future that would all but seal up the remaining southeast portion where alliance troops have yet to set foot. Consequently, Russia is undergoing its own triad modernization.
Obama’s reset failed. While he was able to work with Putin’s predecessor, former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, in 2010 to sign New START, Putin was less willing to play ball once he returned to the presidency in 2012.
Trump, in all of his radioactive incompetence, doesn’t help either. When Putin asked Trump about New START during a phone call this spring, he didn’t even know what the treaty was. Worst of all, he has said little about his views nuclear non-proliferation publicly.
Even if Trump did have the intellectual depth and diplomatic acumen to negotiate nuclear peace treaties and debate the nuances of deterrence, Russia hawks would torch him. But there is a lot of room for hope.
At one point, there were more than 70,000 nukes in the world as late as the mid-1980s before Ronald Reagan was able to work with Mikhail Gorbachev on landmark arms treaties that significantly reduced each nation’s stockpiles. Gorbachev’s 1990 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded in large part to his work to end the Cold War peacefully. It cost him most of his political currency at home, but tough leadership often comes at the price of ignoring bitter partisanship that fails to see the bigger picture.
Today, there are fewer than 15,000 nuclear weapons in the world, and America and Russia own the vast majority.
If the Soviet Union and America could once overcome their Cold War differences, there is certainly room for a visionary U.S. or Russian president to set a similar tone for the 21st century. A change in the Soviet leadership changed what could have been a disastrous Cold War showdown.
Leading up to the larger conversation about scrapping the nuclear Triad, the Trump administration could take the bold move of saying they will go down to 1,000 deployed weapons, much lower than the current New START limit of 1,550. Coyle says this would force Putin’s hand.
“It’s silly for us to spend more money on this,” Wright said. “If the Russians want to continue spending the money on this, [tell them] knock yourself out. I just have to believe that Putin’s response to that would be, ‘Gee. It’s gonna look weird if we’re spending all of this money on systems and the U.S. feels like it can go down.”
Small steps like these could lead to bigger steps like knocking off one triad leg. The reality is that America’s nuclear stockpile is far superior to Russia’s. A fleet of SLBMs can more than make up for a new generation Minuteman-IIIs Putin will clearly see as threatening.
America should always maintain a robust nuclear deterrent, but the ultimate goal should be for Washington to demonstrate that its leadership is equally committed to creating a world without nukes.
And that starts with scraping the Minuteman-IIIs.
“Where do you stop,” Wright said. “How many different legs does it take before the deterrent is adequate?”
CORRECTION: In the article, I mistaken wrote “hydrogen” bomb when I meant “atomic.” Sorry about that.