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By Peter Huessy, President of GeoStrategic Analysis, Potomac, Maryland - Senior Warrior Maven Columnist
For the past two decades disarmament and global zero advocates have been pushing for the elimination of the ICBM leg of the US nuclear triad. The rationale? ICBMs were destabilizing, on a hair trigger alert status, and prone to being inadvertently launched in a crisis because if a president did not launch the missiles first, they could be destroyed in their fixed silos by attacking Russian warheads. A critical part of this narrative was the idea that in 1979 in 1980 there were false warnings of a Soviet missile attack that came perilously close to pressuring the President of the United States to mistakenly launch our ICBMs.
This argument failed to persuade the past four administrations to eliminate our 400 ICBMs from our nuclear Triad. Why? In large part because on close examination, the hair trigger narrative failed to be credible.
On the contrary the Obama and Trump administrations both went forward with plans to deploy a new land-based ICBM or the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent, (GBSD) replacing the current 50 your-old Minuteman missiles. Sensing intellectual defeat, the disarmament community advocates of zero ICBMs suddenly switched gears. They made two completely new arguments.
First, they dropped the scare stories about Minuteman being on a hair trigger alert status. Instead, they argued that Minuteman would never be launched even in a crisis or following a Russian attack, because the missiles deployed over five states in 400 distinct silos each separated by at least 3 miles, are needed to, like a magic “sponge”, soak up nearly 1000 Russian warheads that would then not be available to target American cities. To be a sponge, the ICBM missiles never need to be launched.
Second, the disarmers surprisingly fervently embraced ICBMs and wanted to keep the old MM III around even longer than now planned. The new idea? The current 50-year-old Minuteman III missiles could have their life extended for an additional 15 years. But supposedly at a cheaper cost then the deployment costs of a new GBSD. A sponge indeed, but a cheaper sponge! Then down the road, United States would decide around 2050 whether or not to deploy a new ICBM or get out of the new ICBM business altogether, saving the cost of a new ICBM in the interim.**
And even if the US got out of the ICBM business, that would be a good thing as well say the disarmers. If the US jettisoned its land-based ICBM force, it is argued the Russians would be also willing to get rid of their fully modernized highly accurate ICBM force as well. One prominent disarmament supporter argued that only if the United States was openly giving up its ICBMs, would Russia “find it easier” to give up their ICBMs too!!
Now it is true as number of prominent defense officials claimed a Minuteman III service life extension program was possible, although none seem to be aware of the strategic implications and costs of such an option or whether it was viable in the first place. This is especially true in that the 1995-2006 life extension for Minuteman was only partial, and it only bought the 20 additional years that extended MM through 2030. But as the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General John Hyten has explained, he studied this issue previously as head of requirements for US Space Command and concluded Minuteman simply cannot effectively have its life extended beyond where it is now scheduled to be deployed.
There was one exception and that was a Rand corporation report in 2017 that said the United States could temporarily keep the Minuteman III ICBM force by providing a limited SLEP until such time as the United States made an informed decision about further modernization of our ICBM force. The Rand report made unwarranted assumptions about what a life-extension might entail and the costs and was simply rejected by both Congress and the past two administrations.
But let us assume for the sake of argument that an extension of the Minuteman force is possible. Here is why that option does not make any sense:
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(1) a refurbished Minuteman does not meet the anticipated military requirements as established by the deterrent strategy of the United States in terms of accuracy, penetration capability, and lower sustainment costs;
(2) a refurbished Minuteman actually costs more than a new GBSD by at least $38 billion, says General Tim Ray, the commander of Global Strike Command;
(3) Even over the short term, MM SLEP is at least $1 billion a year more than the GBSD program of record;
(4) requiring the sea based leg of the triad to take on the targeting capability of 400 ICBMs—in the case of eliminating the ICBMs— would require deploying on a day-to-day alert basis an additional five nuclear Columbia class submarines and 80 D5/2 missiles, at a cost of at least an additional $125 billion;
(5) any MMIIII refurbishment will only last (say even its advocates) a decade and a half at best, with United States then facing an automatic fait accompli of an ICBM-less nuclear force with the result that the <700 SNDV’s the United States deploys under the New Start treaty would fall to 300; and
(6) since any Minuteman III SLEP will require new warheads, a new NC3 system, and new infrastructure, (as will a GBSD) at a cost of multiple tens of billions of dollars, all this investment will then be wasted as Minuteman will be impossible to sustain in a cost-effective manner beyond 2050 and the new warheads and NC3 might not be compatible with a future GBSD, requiring another entire investment plan for warheads and NC3.
Knowing all these points are true, advocates of further unilateral reductions then offer a kind of compromise. They suggest the USA simply and arbitrarily change its deterrent strategy to allow the unilateral cut of USA nuclear forces to 1000 warheads, arguing there is no need to keep the 1550 notional warheads allowed by the New Start Treaty. But we could keep our Triad, just at smaller levels.
The is of course news to the architects of USA deterrent requirements. As former OSD official John Harvey explains, any further reduction according to the military and civilian experts would have to be done in concert with Russia.
Here is why the new idea of cutting to 1000 warheads, 10 submarines and 300 ICBMs does not work.
Cutting the planned Columbia class submarines to 10 vs 12, and GBSD ICBMs to 300 vice 400 sounds simple. What could go wrong?
First the RDT&E for both modernized elements remain the same, and any future acquisition budget savings would occur at the end of the planned acquisition period between 2035-2042, providing no budget relief for the next 15 years.
Even worse, the slowdown in submarine production would trigger the “bathtub” effect where the submarine force falls to 8 submarines not 10, with 64-80 fewer missiles and 350-400 fewer warheads (16/20 missiles x 4 submarines x 5.5 average warheads per missile) below the current planned sub force, and even a significant reduction below the total force of 1000.
To plan our deterrent based on arbitrary arms control notions, with no analysis of deterrent requirements is reckless, and should not be taken seriously. Reducing our sub fleet by fully one-third means the operational requirements to have at least four submarines in their patrol area at any one time is junked, with the likelihood that only two, not four, submarines could be on patrol at any one time, seriously undermining our deterrent credibility.
On a day to day basis, such an arbitrary reduction to 1000 warheads would actually reduce the day to day deployed long range missile force to 700-850 warheads, with only 450 not 800+ on alert at any one time.
Finally, the advocates of phasing out ICBMs also seem oblivious to new Russian and Chinese nuclear deployments. Russia has deployed or will deploy from 2010 to 2025 an additional 20 new types of nuclear weapons platforms, while China will double its nuclear deterrent forces over the next five years and is going for a full Triad and a counter-military nuclear strategy.
Russia’s 526 SNDV level is indeed less than the roughly <700 deployed by the United States, but even moderately loaded the Russian systems could easily carry between 2700-3200 warheads, to say nothing of the at least 1900-2000 additional theater or regional nuclear warheads the US intelligence community believes is the minimum available Russian force level.
Furthermore, the Russian hedge or breakout capability can easily and quickly reach 4300-5400 warheads from the current treaty limited deployed capability of 2200-2300. To say nothing of 5 exotic new nuclear systems that may or may not fit under the New START treaty limits.
As for the cost of the nuclear enterprise, the current $44 billion is 5.9% of the $741 billion defense budget. Nearly 67% of all spending is for sustainment and refurbishment, not modernization. This is not to argue the cost is not significant. It is to argue that the cost is well within the affordability of the country especially in light of the $6.2 trillion new non-defense spending proposed by the new administration for FY2021-25, over and above the $5.2 trillion inherited budget for FY2021. With the new CBO estimate of coming deficits in the $2.8-$3.2 trillion level, killing GBSD and saving $2.5 billion next year seems superfluous. It is a rounding error or a rounding error. As for going with a MM SLEP vs a new GBSD, that option actually worsens the deficit. Even today, the modernization Triad elements---the new Columbia class sub, GBSD ICBM, B-21 bomber, and the D-5/2 ballistic missile and LRSO cruise missile-- comes to a whopping total of $8.5 billion out of a defense budget of $741 billion, or 1.1% of the defense budget.
In short, advocates of zero ICBMs who have now become advocates of keeping a 50-year-old Minuteman ICBM, are proposing that we keep a MM III missile that is:
(1) more expensive by $38 billion;
(2) more difficult and costly to annually sustain;
(3) will not meet future deterrent requirements;
(4) will automatically get us out of the nuclear business in less than two decades;
(5) profoundly jeopardizes strategic stability; and
(6) make future arms control highly improbable.
**[Unfortunately, by 20250 if we did not already have a GBSD type program already funded in the pipeline, it is not as if we could drive up to Home Depot and buy a new ICBM force. To be ready to go forward would of course require funding for just such a new ICBM program as we are now, which critics think can be deep sixed now and then magically revived just in time to avoid a degradation of our deterrent!]
Peter R. Huessy – Mr. Huessy is the President of Geostrategic Analysis, a Potomac, Maryland-based defense and national security consulting business, and Director of Strategic Deterrent Studies at the Mitchell Institute, a Senior Fellow at ICAS, a senior consultant with Ravenna Associates, and previously for 22 years Senior Defense Consultant with the National Defense University Foundation at Fort McNair in Washington, D.C.He is and has been a Guest Lecturer at the School of Advanced International Affairs at Johns Hopkins University, at the Institute of World Politics, at the University of Maryland, at the Joint Military Intelligence School, at the Naval Academy and at the National War College.