Skip to main content

Video Above:  How The Pentagon & CIA Align Efforts Improve Innovation, Train Leaders for Future War

By Kris Osborn - President, Center for Military Modernization 

(Washington D.C.) Could the US effectively achieve strategic nuclear deterrence with a “dyad” rather than a “triad,” a concept now being introduced by some members of Congress and advocates of varying degrees of nuclear disarmament or a simple reduction in the size and scope of the US nuclear arsenal?

The idea, while facing significant bi-partisan opposition in Congress and concern from Pentagon weapons developers, involves a suggestion to essentially “save money” by canceling the new US ICBM slated to emerge at the end of this decade. The thinking is that the Pentagon does not need to build 400 new ICBM land-fired nuclear weapons because the two other “legs” of the triad, air-and-sea, would be sufficient for needed strategic deterrence.

ICBM

A recent RAND study takes up this specific issue in depth and specifies reasons cited by those suggesting a cancellation of the Sentinel, a new ICBM slated to enter service by 2029.

Minuteman III ICBM

Minuteman III ICBM

“In the judgment of senior defense officials and military officers, replacing the Minuteman III with GBSD is essential to maintaining a viable land-based strategic deterrent,” the RAND report, called Modernizing the U.S. Nuclear Triad: The Rationale for a New Intercontinental Ballistic Missile | RAND.

Proponents of moving to a “dyad” point to added cost savings and risks of a possible miscalculation or accidental launch. Others favoring cancellation of the Sentinel cite the possibility of continued modernization of the 1960s-era Minuteman III, something which is widely dismissed as possible by Pentagon and Congressional decision makers.

While the report details numerous perspectives on the issue, the text of the RAND study takes the clear position that the US is in dire need of a new ICBM given the fast-changing threat environment.

Should the land-leg of the “triad” be dissolved, the US would be left to relying only upon the sea and air leg of the triad, meaning submarine-launched nuclear-armed missiles and air-dropped nuclear weapons carried by a B-2, B-21 or F-35A would have to suffice as a way to deter a potential enemy from launching a nuclear attack. “No Way,” according to the Pentagon and many members of Congress, who say such a move would leave the US extremely vulnerable to a massive “bolt-out-of-the-blue” enemy nuclear attack. The concept here would be for an enemy to launch a large-scale salvo of nuclear weapons at one time to overwhelm defenses and destroy or cripple critical elements of the US infrastructure to achieve victory on a large scale before a counterattack could be launched.

B-2

B-2

The only way to stop this, proponents of the Sentinel and GBSD maintain, would be to ensure a massive “salvo” kind of nuclear response. The idea is to prevent an adversary from thinking there might be any way to “win” a nuclear war. After all, the premise of strategic deterrence rests upon a particular paradox, wherein devastating weapons are developed and fielded for the specific purpose .. of keeping the peace. Arms to prevent nuclear war, is the thinking behind the Pentagon’s deterrence posture, and many senior leaders point out it is something which has proven effective to a large extent because there has not been great power war since WWII.

The RAND corporation study also details many reasons why the Pentagon's aging, 1960s-era Minuteman III simply cannot be upgraded or sustained in any viable way as the US pivots to respond to a fast-changing global nuclear threat environment.

The report, titled Modernizing the U.S. Nuclear Triad: The Rationale for a New Intercontinental Ballistic Missile | RAND, says that the Pentagon needs to remain on course to field the new Sentinel ICBM by 2029, something now being questioned by some critics from lawmakers and various nuclear disarmament groups.

“By 2030, it will have been 20 years or longer since the solid-rocket motors, guidance sets, and propulsion rocket system engines in the fleet were replaced or refurbished. Those subsystems continue to age, as do other components that have never been updated,” the RAND report states.

Drawing upon extensive research, the RAND report takes a clear position, stating “The first and perhaps most compelling argument advanced for fielding a new ICBM is that it is no longer technically feasible nor cost-effective to continue extending the service life of the Minuteman III.”

The text of the study includes a lot of detail related to practical and technical reasons why the Minuteman III can no longer be upgraded due to a variety of factors such as “corrosion, water intrusion, collapsed conduits, misaligned doors, and bulging walls are prevalent.”

Scroll to Continue

Recommended for You

The RAND essay quotes Maj Gen Anthony W. Genatempo, director of the Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center, expressing concern that the Minuteman III’s 60-year-old heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems could fail, an event that “would take a missile off line for an unknown amount of time as it is fixed.”

Ground Based Strategic Deterrent

Ground Based Strategic Deterrent

Also, Air Force analysts made an interesting and potentially surprising finding several years ago, calculating that developing the GBSD Sentinel would actually be much less expensive than further upgrading the Minuteman III by as much as $38 billion.

There is also a maintenance issue with the Minuteman III, according to the report, which says that the infrastructure and facilities themselves built to support the ICBMs were constructed in the 1960s, and exhibiting “serious aging issues.”

“Additionally, much of the specialized and unique gear required to maintain the missiles on alert (e.g., vehicles, handling equipment, diagnostic test sets, and cables) is simply worn out,” the report says.

Overall, the report takes the position that Cold-War era ICBMs from “half century ago” were initially built to operate for a ten-year service life.

“Despite continued support for the Triad, programs to replace the Minuteman III were deliberately and repeatedly deferred in favor of extending the aging missile’s service life until the Obama administration decided to develop and deploy a new ICBM after extensive study of alternatives.

While senior military leaders and members of Congress cite a long-list of reasons why the Pentagon needs to stay on course to deliver the new Sentinel ICBM by 2029, there is a particular high-tech concern being echoed by weapons developers related to continued use of the upgraded Minuteman III ICBM. Simply, it could be hacked.

While military leaders are of course clear not to elaborate on specifics related to technical threats, many make the general point that the upgraded Minuteman III ICBM is simply insufficient to address a new threat environment. For instance, Russian and Chinese “cyber-hacking” technology and fast-evolving development of space weapons and jamming technologies have massively increased the threat equation when it comes to ensuring that a Minuteman III will be able to stay on course to a target.

A recently published new RAND study called Modernizing the U.S. Nuclear Triad: The Rationale for a New Intercontinental Ballistic Missile | RAND takes up this question and cites comments from Adm. Charles Richard, Command of US Strategic Command, specifically highlighting potential adversaries “cyber capabilities.”

The text of the report quotes Richard saying “I need a weapon that can fly and make it to the target. Minuteman III is increasingly challenged in its ability to do that…… “[t]here is almost no possibility of an upgrade (to the Minuteman III) on that relative to the threat.”

By contrast, the new Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (called the Sentinel) is being engineered with what the RAND study calls a “dedicated cybersecurity component tasked with integrating cyber requirements throughout the system design.” The RAND essay goes on to say that this current cyber focus related to The Sentinel is a “stark contrast to the Minuteman III, which was first developed and fielded before the invention of the internet and which senior defense officials have cautioned can no longer be retrofitted to meet evolving cyber threats.”

While many of the specifics related to these threats are not likely to be available for security reasons, there do seem to be a few areas where enemy cyber attacks might focus. Certainly computerized ground-based command and control networks could be targeted with intrusions, denial of service or malware attacks. Guidance systems could be targeted by software programmable RF or EW signals seeking to “jam” an ICBMs flight trajectory toward a target and communications networks engineered to relay time-sensitive threat information to decision-makers could also be targeted. For several years now, the Air Force has been working on implementing a 7-point cyber security effort intended to increase cyber resilience by finding and addressing potential vulnerabilities early in the developmental process. The intent, first outlined by Air Force Materiel Command years ago, is to “bake in” cyber protections by identifying possible risks during the prototyping and early digital engineering phases of development. Digital engineering is one reason the new Sentinel is on track to emerge by 2029, because weapons developers had opportunities to examine multiple design models before actually “bending metal.” Addressing cyber security was likely a major part of this, given the fast-changing threat equation.

As part of the Sentinel preparation and technological maturation process, the Air Force has been working with Northrop Grumman to engineer an entirely new command and control system, computing infrastructure and networking ability. Some of the specific efforts have involved finding ways to ensure that “enemy intrusions” cannot access any kind of launch protocol system.

The advanced Command and Control is also likely to secure data transfer from threat detection systems to higher authorities to shorten the timeline or notification curve between when senior decision makers learn of a threat and responsive weapons systems are put on alert. This incorporates space connectivity with secured and fortified ground control stations in position to quickly integrate with ICBMs should there be some kind of unanticipated “bolt out of the blue” attack.

The growing extent to which weapons systems are cyber reliant reinforces the need to harden command and control networks and computer processing for the new ICBMs, as advanced connectivity can bring unprecedented advantages while also introducing some risks. This may be why the entire hardware and software infrastructure necessary to support the new ICBMs is essentially being rebuilt with upgradeable, securely developed technologies.

Finally, along with designing and building the missiles themselves, prototypes of which already exist, the Northrop Grumman-Air Force effort includes a rebuilding of the entire ICBM infrastructure to include new launch facilities and launch centers, as well as new software and Command and Control technology. Northrop Grumman is reconstructing as many as 450 launch facilities and building the first prototype components of the ICBM, which will first fire off in 2023

Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master’s Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.

Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master’s Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.