Author :
Elliott Negin
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The Deadly $125-Billion ICBM Boondoggle


 The Equation Read More 

Last December, Utah Sen. Mitt Romney issued a press release crowing about all the money he secured for his state in the National Defense Authorization Act, the annual bill that lays out what the government will spend on the US military in the following fiscal year. He specifically cited the $4.3 billion in the legislation for the new Sentinel intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) system, a chunk of which will go to the system’s manager, the Hill Air Force Base, 30 miles north of Salt Lake City.

Ultimately, the Air Force is poised to spend more than $125 billion on 650 Sentinel ICBMs, deploying 400 of them to replace the Cold War-era Minuteman III ICBMs siloed in five Great Plains states. The new ICBMs are part of the Pentagon’s plan to spend more than $1.5 trillion over the next 30 years to replace the entire nuclear arsenal with new weapons and delivery systems.

Romney claimsthat the land-based leg of the nuclear triad is “vital” to nuclear deterrence. The evidence, however, suggests otherwise. That’s why experts inside and outside of the government have called for completely eliminating silo-based ICBMs, maintaining that a nuclear dyad of bombers and submarines would be more than adequate to deter a nuclear attack or, in the unlikely event of such an attack, retaliate. They also warn that the ICBMs are destabilizing—and deadly. Russian missiles could reach them within a half hour, giving the US president at most 10 minutes to decide whether to launch them before they were destroyed on the ground.

To ensure that it can launch the missiles unscathed, the Air Force maintains them on high alert, ready to fire within minutes of receiving a presidential order. Doing so, however, increases the possibility of an accidental nuclear war triggered by a false warning. Indeed, there have been a number of close calls over the last six decades due to human and technological errors.

Land-based ICBMs may have made sense years ago, when they were more accurate and powerful than submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) and communications links with subs were unreliable. But sub-launched missiles are now as accurate as ICBMs—if not more so—and the Navy has secure submarine communication links. Moreover, ICBMs are sitting ducks, while nuclear-armed submarines—each of which could destroy two dozen cities—are virtually invulnerable when they are at sea.

A wide array of experts, including scientists, disarmament groups, top US military officials, and even a former US defense secretary, agree that land-based ICBMs have outlived their usefulness.

In December 2021, nearly 700 scientists and engineers, including 21 Nobel laureates, sent a letter to President Biden urging him to consider eliminating the ICBMs because they create “the risk of a mistaken launch in response to a false warning” and “provide no military capability that is not provided by SLBMs at sea….” If elimination is not politically feasible, they recommended canceling the Sentinel ICBM replacement program and extending the life of the current Minuteman ICBMs for at least another 20 years.

More than 60 national and regional disarmament organizations, including Back from the Brink, Global Zero, Physicians for Social Responsibility and RootsAction, issued a statement in January 2022 calling for scrapping land-based ICBMs altogether. “Rather than being any kind of deterrent, ICBMs are the opposite—a foreseeable catalyst for nuclear attack,” the statement read. “ICBMs certainly waste billions of dollars, but what makes them unique is the threat that they pose to all of humanity.”

At least two generals—George Lee Butler, a former US Strategic Command director, and James E. Cartwright, a former Joint Chiefs of Staff vice chair and US Strategic Command director—have been unequivocal about getting rid of silo-based ICBMs. When asked in a 2017 interview about their role, Butler replied: “I would have removed land-based missiles from our arsenal a long time ago. I’d be happy to put that mission on the submarines.”

Cartwright, meanwhile, has spoken out numerous times on the topic. As far back as 2012, he recommended doing away with the ICBMs, taking US nuclear weapons off hair-trigger alert, and reducing the number of deployed US nuclear warheads—estimated at the time at 2,150—to 900. Five years later, Cartwright coauthored a column in the Washington Post repeating his point that land-based ICBMs “carry higher risks of accidental war that, fortunately, we no longer need to bear. We are safer without these expensive weapons, and it would be foolish to replace them” with a new generation of missiles.

Cartwright’s coauthor for that 2017 column was William J. Perry, US defense secretary from 1994 to 1997. Perry coauthored another Washington Post column in 2020 that again warned about the threat posed by land-based ICBMs. “These dangerous missiles are not needed for deterrence, as we would use survivable weapons based on submarines at sea for any retaliation,” he wrote. “Yet ICBMs increase the risk that we will blunder into nuclear war by mistake. … Starting a nuclear war by mistake is the greatest existential risk to the United States today. The ICBMs are, at best, extra insurance that we do not need; at worst, they are a nuclear catastrophe waiting to happen.”

Subsequent defense secretaries Chuck Hagel, who served from 2015 to 2017, and Gen. James Mattis, who served from 2017 to 2019, also questioned the need for siloed ICBMs, but backpedaled when pressured during their respective Senate confirmation hearings. Two years before President Trump tapped him to be his defense secretary, for example, Mattis cast doubt on keeping the ICBMs, partly because of the risk of an accidental launch. In 2015 he told the Senate Armed Services Committee: “You should ask, ‘Is it time to reduce the triad to a dyad removing the land-based missiles?’”

Failing to come up with a viable technological justification for land-based ICBMs, proponents cite a rationale concocted by the Air Force decades ago that maintains the ICBMs’ vulnerability to attack is just what makes them essential. In 1978, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Lew Allen Jr. said the ICBMs provide a “great sponge” of targets to “absorb” Soviet nuclear missiles. It would take too many warheads to destroy all of the ICBMs, the theory goes, thus deterring the Russians from considering such an attack. Without the land-based missiles, Russia would have significantly fewer military targets and could train its sites on US cities.

It may have been the case 50 years ago that it would take two to four enemy warheads to ensure the destruction of each ICBM, but according to a 2018 Arms Control Association white paper: “Today the probability of destroying a Minuteman III missile silo with a single Russian warhead could exceed 98 percent given advancements in inertial guidance that could be aided with a Global Positioning System (GPS) and maneuverable reentry vehicles (MaRVs) to improve accuracy. While this may be an overstatement now, it should not be expected to remain one.”

Russia currently has an estimated 1,674 strategic warheads deployed on ballistic missiles and at bomber bases, slightly fewer than the estimated 1,770 warheads the United States now deploys on ICBMs, submarines and bombers. Even if it took two Russian warheads to completely destroy each of the 400 US ICBM in their silos, Russia would still have 874 left over, more than enough to incinerate the rest of the country.

Late last year, Sébastien Philippe, a scientist at Princeton University, and his colleagues at the school’s Program on Science and Global Security mapped the radiological threat posed by a nuclear attack on US ICBMs in what he called “unprecedented detail” by using current computational capacity and higher resolutions of archived weather data. In an article in Scientific American’s December issue, Philippe explained the likely result:

“According to my models, a concerted nuclear attack on the existing US silo fields—in Colorado, Wyoming, Nebraska, Montana and North Dakota—would annihilate all life in the surrounding regions and contaminate fertile agricultural land for years. Minnesota, Iowa and Kansas would also probably face high levels of radioactive fallout. Acute radiation exposure alone would cause several million fatalities across the US—if people get advance warning and can shelter in place for at least four days. Without appropriate shelter, that number could be twice as high. Because of great variability in wind directions, the entire population of the contiguous US and the most populated areas of Canada, as well as the northern states of Mexico, would be at risk of lethal fallout—more than 300 million people in total.”

In other words, we—along with our neighbors to the north and south—are the sponge.

To be sure, Russian President Vladimir Putin threatened to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine, withdrew from the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, suspended Russian participation in the New Start treaty, and is allegedly developing a space-based nuclear antisatellite weapon, but it is highly unlikely that he would contemplate launching a first strike against the United States. That said, the potential for an ICBM-triggered accidental nuclear war looms large and—as Philippe pointed out in his article—the communities near US missile silos live under the threat of an accidental warhead detonation or release of radioactive materials due to a fire or explosion, which has happened before.

Given the dangers silo-based ICBMs pose—and the fact that they are unnecessary—why are they still there?

A major obstacle to questioning, let alone modifying, the status of US land-based missiles is the powerful ICBM Coalition in Congress. Comprised of senators from states that are home to the nation’s three ICBM bases—Montana, North Dakota and Wyoming—as well as Utah, where the Air Force and its contractors manage the ICBM system, the coalition has so far been able to quash attempts to cut back the number of missiles and bases, which provide a major boost to their state and local economies. The F.E. Warren Air Force Base just outside Cheyenne, for example, is Wyoming’s largest employer.

Over the years, ICBM Coalition members have been rewarded for their efforts with generous campaign contributions from the defense contractors that service ICBMs, including General Dynamics, Lockheed Martin and Northrup Grumman, the sole contractor that bid on building the new Sentinel missile. William D. Hartung, now a senior research fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, crunched Federal Election Commission numbers for a May 2021 cover storyhe wrote for Arms Control Today, “Inside the ICBM Lobby.” From2012 through 2020, Hartung reported, the coalition members who received the most money from ICBM contractor political action committees and employees were Mitt Romney, who took in $645,545 (mainly when he ran for president in 2012); Jon Tester from Montana, who received $102,360; John Barrasso from Wyoming, who pulled in $89,000; Steve Daines from Montana, who received $85,948; and John Hoeven from North Dakota, who got $81,145. Hartung also found that from 2019 through 2020, the top 11 ICBM contractors spent more than $119 million on lobbying Congress and employed 380 lobbyists, many of whom had formerly worked on Capitol Hill.  

President Joe Biden came into office promising to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in US national security policy. Unfortunately, with both Russia and China reportedly modernizing their nuclear arsenals and an election year now in full swing, eliminating the land-based ICBMs does not appear to be politically viable. Not surprisingly, the Biden administration’s most recent Nuclear Posture Review reapproved most of the Pentagon’s longstanding plans to spend an estimated $756 billion over the next 10 years to maintain and upgrade its nuclear forces, which includes replacing the ICBMs.

But even if current political realities will saddle Great Plains states with ICBMs for the time being, the Air Force can take steps to protect them—and the rest of us.

A 2020 Union of Concerned Scientists report, “Rethinking Land-Based Nuclear Missiles,” coauthured by Hartung and physicists Lisbeth Gronlund and David Wright, echoed former Secretary of Defense Perry’s position. It explicitly called for getting rid of the missiles, but until that happens, it recommended that the Air Force immediately take the ICBMs off hair-trigger alert and prolong their life instead of replacing them. “Official studies,” the report pointed out, “show that the Air Force can continue to extend the operational life of the Minuteman missiles for many decades.”

Indeed, according to the Air Force itself, there is no reason to replace the Minuteman ICBMs. Between 2002 and 2012, it spent some $7 billion to upgrade them to the point where an Air Force program analyst confirmed that they were “basically new missiles except for the shell.” Five years later, commenting on a successful ICBM missile flight test, the Air Force Global Strike Command Public Affairs Office boasted: “Through continuous upgrades, including new production versions, improved targeting systems, and enhanced accuracy, today’s Minuteman system remains state of the art and is capable of meeting all modern challenges.” Nothing has changed since then. In September 2023, the Air Force conducted yet another successful ICBM flight test and proclaimed that it demonstrated “that the United States’ nuclear deterrent is safe, secure, reliable and effective to deter twenty-first century threats….”

The initial estimate of the Sentinel program’s price tag was $95.3 billion, but recent news reports, citing “poor budget forecasting, supply-chain challenges and pandemic-driven inflation,” estimate that the new missile program now could cost more than $125 billion. That’s a lot of money for new versions of weapons that even former Secretary of State and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Colin Powell has said are “useless” and “must never be used.” It may not be politically expedient to scrap these dangerous weapons at the moment, but the least the Air Force could do is save US taxpayers billions and stop throwing good money after bad on new ICBMs.


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