The Role of the Intercontinental Ballistic Missile in Deterrence
Peter Huessy - Senior Warrior Maven Columnist
Current ICBM Issues
For the past six decades, the United States has maintained a triad of nuclear deterrent forces, including submarines, strategic bombers, and land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM). The current ICBM force is made up of 400 Minuteman III (MM III) which is a three stage missile each with one warhead with a range of over 5000 miles, housed in 400 widely spaced silos in five mid-western states (Colorado, Montana, North Dakota, Nebraska, and North Dakota), along with 45 launch control centers. 1
The deployed area is larger than the five states of Rhode Island, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Delaware, and New Jersey, which severely complicates any attacker’s idea of trying to take out all the missiles.
A key issue addressed here is whether the United States should build a replacement—the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD)—for the MM III ICBM. First deployed in 1970, the MM III has undergone three service-life extensions that will keep the missile in the force through 2030. However, the weapon system is becoming more technologically difficult to operate and needs replacing.
The Obama and Trump administrations endorsed GBSD—a full modernization of the ICBM force. The current plan is to have the new deterrent force achieve initial operating capability in 2029, with all 400 missiles fielded by 2036. 2 Thus, several issues are explored in this chapter. They include the relevancy of ICBMs to the
United States Air Force (USAF) mission and the current debate over whether to proceed with the modernization program. The chapter then addresses three important related questions: (1) is the ICBM force militarily necessary for deterrence; (2) is the force affordable; and (3) does the force contribute to strategic stability and arms control prospects? Finally, we conclude with an overview of why the nuclear role of our USAF airmen is important to the United States as leader of the free world.
Why are ICBMS Relevant to the Mission of the USAF and Nation?
Whether or not the US maintains our land-based leg of the triad will have very significant impacts on the USAF role in nuclear deterrence, but also the relative strength of the United States deterrent posture toward the two powers we currently are most concerned with, Russia and
China. While Congress continues to support the administration’s strategic deterrent modernization plan, that consensus is less robust than before. In the House of Representatives, some members are calling for the elimination of the ICBM and a new cruise missile for strategic bombers. 3 These same members have also suggested the United States could confidently deter the nation’s nuclear armed adversaries with as few as 300 total deployed warheads, compared to the 1550 now allowed by the 2010 New Start agreement. 4 In 2019, funding for the GBSD, was cut not insignificantly by the House, although the final defense bill signed by the President fully funded the administration’s requested nuclear modernization elements, including GBSD. Senate supporters successfully held out for a fully-funded nuclear enterprise. 5
Should the US cancel the new ICBM, the strategic balance between Russia, China, and the United States will shift dramatically. In addition, these great power adversaries might be more willing to challenge the US militarily, as they perceive the US lack of commitment to its own nuclear deterrent as a signal the United States is no longer seeking to remain the leader of the free world. Consequently, Chinese and Russian action could thus lead to expanded conventional or nuclear conflict, with all the impacts that would have on national security and prosperity.
The Source of Opposition to ICBM Force Modernization
What is the basis for the opposition to modernizing the ICBM leg of the triad? Opposition is based on two key concerns: (1) on the assumption our ICBMs are not deployed in a survivable mode and thus able to withstand a Russian missile attack, and consequently, (2) the price tag for the GBSD of $65 billion over the next few decades is not worth the investment.
Critics assume that because the 400 ICBM silos are in known fixed positions, our adversaries might strike the ICBM silos in any crisis or anticipated conflict. 6 The assumption is the American ICBMs would be destroyed in their silos prior to the US being able to use them. This perceived instability is thus thought of as too risky, and would be eliminated if ICBMs were eliminated.
The concern over American ICBM survivability is not new. It first arose in the late 1970’s when the Soviet Union had thousands of highly accurate high-yield ICBMs. Then-presidential candidate Ronald Reagan argued the Soviet advantage was so large that they could destroy the 1050 Minuteman II and III ICBMs using a small portion of their own nuclear forces. It was thus feared a Soviet strike could simultaneously eliminate the most accurate and prompt missile forces in the US arsenal—leaving the Soviets with a huge advantage in remaining nuclear forces.
It was further feared such a potential imbalance would enable the Soviets to blackmail or coerce the US into standing down in a crisis. This “window of vulnerability,” as Reagan described it, was part of an overall Soviet military advantage that grew in the 1970s and included the Soviets’ conventional forces and military proxies worldwide.
The Reagan administration knew that at least since 1974, the US tried to modernize its ICBM force by planning to deploy upward of 200 ten-warhead “MX” missiles, eventually deploying a more modest force of fifty Peacekeeper (PK) missiles in Wyoming starting in 1986. In the interim, the US had great difficulty modernizing the ICBM force because of not being able to find a survivable basing mode for the MX missile. This long running battle tended to cement a narrative within some in the nuclear community that ICBMs were simply not worth deploying.
The eventual solution for ensuring the survivability of the triad involved three parts. The US under Reagan’s revolutionary plans did build and deploy the Peacekeeper missile, but we also emphasized the further complimentary future deployment a new single-warhead small ICBM (dubbed Midgetman), as well as our planned Ohio class submarines and B1 and B2 strategic bombers, all elements together capable of surviving a Soviet attack.
Reagan then did arms control, proposing to reduce Soviet and American strategic forces by nearly 90%, lessening the availability of large numbers of Soviet ICBM warheads necessary to carry out a first strike against the United States ICBM force. And finally, and most importantly, Reagan added in proposed missile defenses in a March 1983 speech, so the US could blunt any missile attack, and make far less likely the use of nuclear forces against the United States.
As the USAF Chief of Staff, General David Goldfein told the Mitchell Institute on April 1, 2020 in seminar remarks, the remaining 400 single warhead Minuteman missiles we now have deployed in silos spread over five very large upper mid-western states, cannot be effectively attacked by the Russians. Although not mobile as envisioned by the planned Midgetman missiles, the Minuteman missiles are highly survivable says the Chief, as is the entire US nuclear Triad. 7
Now many nuclear critics especially in the disarmament community, did not think the Reagan plan of modernized forces, arms control and missile defense would improve the strategic balance and strengthen the deterrent mission of the US military, including of course the USAF. At the time, most of the disarmament community sought a nuclear freeze on all US modernization, even though the Soviet forces were nearly fully modernized.
Now, some four decades later, the United States is again having a variation of this old debate, but the opponents of ICBMs are calling for sustaining the ICBMs as is or eliminating the force altogether, while also seeking not a freeze on nuclear force levels but the reduction of nuclear forces to zero.
So even after successfully ending the Cold War and dismantling the Soviet empire, arguments remain that despite a 90% reduction in warheads, further reductions to zero are required, and that since in the view of much of the disarmament community our ICBMs remain highly vulnerable to attack, they should be eliminated, even unilaterally.
The Current Push to Eliminate ICBMs
In addition to the question of vulnerability, as we have noted, opponents of ICBM modernization make several additional claims with respect to ICBMs and the GBSD program. These critics say: (1) the cost of ICBMs is unaffordable; (2) the force is not needed because as we previously detailed, ICBMs would not survive a Russian first strike and be able to effectively retaliate, and (3) the limited survivability puts pressure on a US commander to be tempted to launch the ICBM force in a crisis, thus possibly leading to an inadvertent launch of nuclear weapons and strategic instability. 8
As to whether the ICBM warheads are necessary to maintain in the Triad force to maintain deterrence, disarmament advocates believe the number of sea-based warheads available for retaliation is sufficient to maintain deterrence, and if required, the warheads maintained by the ICBM force could be transferred and thus added to the 192 sea-based missiles planned for our new 12 Columbia-class submarines, thus allowing the US to safely remove the entire ICBM force from our deterrent.
The Basis for Keeping and Modernizing ICBMs
These are all important issues and need to be addressed. First, as for the cost of ICBMs, the total acquisition cost for the new ICBM force is estimated at between $65B and $85B depending on certain assumptions. This cost is estimated over multiple decades. Annual total research and acquisition costs estimates vary, but a range of $3.2-$4.2 billion annually looks most likely, some 1.6% of the current USAF budget, 1/2 of 1% of the defense budget, and $1 out of every $1200 spent annually in the Federal budget. 9
Looked at a different way for example, the cost per warhead on alert—available for the day to day deterrence mission--is lower for ICBMs than any other leg of the nuclear force. And the total modernization and operational costs for ICBMs are the least expensive overall of other elements of the nuclear Triad. Future operational costs for the GBSD are also projected to be less than current costs due to new technologies and new designs built-into the GBSD force, such as modular technology, further undercutting the argument that ICBMs are unaffordable.
As for the stability of the ICBM force, since its first deployment in October 1962, the force has been on alert for nearly 30 million minutes and not once has a US President ordered the missiles to be launched. This despite major crisis and multiple conventional conflicts involving our nuclear armed adversaries. Not only that, the threat of a Soviet (now Russian) all-out attack on America’s entire nuclear
ICBM force, largely no longer applies. The idea that the Russians would launch an attack on just our 400 Minuteman missiles and our 48-launch control centers, assumes the Russian leaders would dismiss as inconsequential the almost certain retaliatory strike from nuclear armed US bombers and submarines. Though this view is not accepted within the disarmament community, one recent essay from the Federation of American Scientists surprisingly admitted that the chances of Russia conducting an all-out attack on the US land-based missiles was essentially “basically zero.” 10
Now, to be clear, although the likelihood of a large-scale Russian nuclear attack on the US homeland may be minuscule, that does not mean all Russian threats have gone away. Particularly worrisome is what General John Hyten, the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, described as an “escalate to win” Russian strategy, explained as the use of limited nuclear strikes against the US in a crisis or conventional conflict. In fact, given this kind of “limited” and probably regional use of nuclear weapons envisioned by Russian President Putin, our ICBM force would be fully survivable and available for deterrence. 11
As the USAF Chief of Staff recently explained no nuclear adversary of the US, including the Russians, could confidentially plan to take out all 400 ICBM land-based missiles spread out over five upper mid-West states. Said the Chief, such a nuclear strike is too complicated and difficult to carry out and not a credible option for any adversary of the US to pursue. 12
As for giving away the ICBM force unilaterally or even trading it away, the Chief explained that an effective and credible US nuclear deterrent must include a robust ICBM nuclear force as envisioned by the GBSD and that he would never recommend eliminating the force from our deterrent. 13 As many nuclear professionals have concluded, the ICBM force is capable of a very accurate and prompt retaliatory strike against our enemies, ensuring the adversaries military forces cannot remain in a sanctuary, free to fire on the US and its allies.
The great value of the ICBM force is illustrated by the Cuban missile crisis. For example, at the end of the crisis, and at a time when the Soviets had limited ICBM capability, President John Kennedy explained that the Minuteman I ICBM force, which had for the first time gone on alert the very day in October when Kennedy announced Soviet missiles were deployed in Cuba, was “my ace in the hole.” 14 Kennedy believed our new Minuteman missiles compelled the Soviets to stand-down and avoid nuclear Armageddon. Our Minuteman ICBMS could strike the Soviet Union in thirty minutes, able to hit any target, for which Moscow had no defense. Finally, is the US ICBM force consistent with projected arms control? Historically, from 1972 to
1987, strategic nuclear “arms control” consisted of the SALT I and II agreements that governed mutually agreed upon build-ups in US and Soviet strategic nuclear forces from a couple of thousand to over twelve thousand warheads. Unfortunately, the Soviets built up very quickly, while the US in the 1970s largely failed to modernize, often either cutting nuclear modernizing funding or delaying programs altogether.
Under President Reagan, the traditional arms control sanctioned year-by-year increase in nuclear weapons, was replaced with a revolutionary new concept. The US would modernize its nuclear force but make it more stabilizing while simultaneously reducing overall numbers. Added into the mix were planned missile defenses which could significantly blunt any nuclear missile threats further improving deterrence.
Reagan’s push for missile defense, nuclear modernization and major warhead reductions was successful, as under the 1991 START I, the 2002 Moscow and 2010 New Start agreements, overall deployed US and Russian strategic nuclear forces were reduced by nearly 90%, from over 12000 to 1550 warheads.
For ICBMs, the 1050 land based MMII and MMIII missiles the US maintained were reduced to the current 400. Instead of carrying three warheads, each Minuteman III (and the GBSD missile) will carry only one warhead, making the missiles a highly unattractive target, while still allowing the US to maintain an ICBM force capable of credible, accurate and punishing strikes against our adversaries.
A possible future arms deal could try and duplicate the START II treaty ban on multiple warheads on land-based missiles which President Bush and President Yeltsin signed in January 1993. Consistent with the deal, the US did download all its ICBMs to only one warhead.
Russia’s Duma refused to ratify START II without a parallel ban on US missile defenses, a deal the Congress and Clinton administration would not approve. So very decidedly, the Minuteman force, and certainly the follow-on GBSD force, are both perfectly compatible with arms control and improving strategic stability. Finally, is there any urgency for the US to proceed to modernize its ICBMs? Is the US as many critics contend, engendering some kind of “arms race” if we go forward with our own nuclear modernization effort?
The necessity for the US to proceed with all due haste to modernize its nuclear forces is based on both what Russia is doing under the ceilings imposed by the New Start treaty of 2010 as well as what Russia is doing with nuclear forces not restrained by the New Start treaty.
While “official” and accountable Russian strategic nuclear deployed forces number 1550, as the 2010 New Start treaty allows, the Russians are building additional new nuclear forces that Moscow’s asserts are not covered by the 2010 treaty. These Russian forces are estimated to reach 400 warheads by the middle of the current decade. This is on top of Russia modernizing 87% of its entire New Start Treaty allowed nuclear force by the end of 2020, while the US by comparison will have zero percent of its bombers, submarines and land-based missiles modernized by that time. 15
Stopping our current modernization effort now might send a signal to the Russians we are no longer serious about the deterrent business. And as our existing nuclear platforms are reaching the end of their service life, they need to be replaced in a timely manner to avoid as one commentator said US forces “rusting to obsolescence.” 16
Given Russia has completed 87% of its nuclear modernization and US has completed 0%, the assertion that US nuclear modernization effort is “opening the door to an expensive arms race” may need to be re-examined.
Why is the Role the Airman Plays Important to US National Security?
In the nuclear age—since 1945—there have not been large scale conventional wars between and among the world’s strongest military powers. The 75-year period of relative peace is unprecedented in most of human history. The USAF airman who have maintained and operated our nuclear deterrent especially our land-based ICBM and strategic bomber force, have helped kept the peace year after year.
However, in appreciating the role of the USAF in keeping the peace, our airmen should understand some critics of our nuclear forces don’t fully buy into the idea that our nuclear umbrella protecting our allies in Europe and Asia really did keep the peace. As was argued recently, international “agreements” were just as responsible for keeping the peace as America’s nuclear umbrella.
No doubt, international agreements, including arms control, have reduced the chances for conflict. But the US nuclear deterrent for most of the Cold War was and is to today designed, in part, to prevent the Soviets and now the Russians from invading Western Europe, to stop the DPRK from invading the Republic of Korea and from preventing China from going to war against Taiwan.
But for each of these possible conflicts, there were and are no agreements where the feared aggressors pledged not to use force. And if there were such “agreements,” would it be prudent to rely on such “deals” for our security and consequently stand-down our deterrent?
So, the USAF airmen in their nuclear role are preserving the peace in a very big way. Not only are they helping to prevent major war between the world’s nuclear armed superpowers, but over many decades have significantly reduced casualties from wars. As the former head of Strategic Command Admiral Richard Mies laid out in a 2017 essay on the US nuclear deterrent, the number of casualties from military conflict has dropped 98% since the dawn of the nuclear age.
For example, from the beginning of WWI and to the end of WWII, (1914-1945 or 30 years) an estimated 90 million people both military and civilian perished from war. 17 Since then, during the nuclear age from 1945, annual average fatalities from war of all kinds over a 75-year period have plummeted by close to 98%, although the number of armed conflicts have remained nearly the same over each decade. 18
The Role of the USAF’s Deterrence Capability
As our USAF airmen have maintained and operated our land-based missiles now for nearly six decades, there has been significant world-wide expansion of peace and prosperity. The end of the Soviet empire and the Cold War led to the liberation from tyranny of nearly one billion people.
Additionally, the end of the Cold War saw annual average per capita income of people in the free and near free world increase significantly, by $7800 over the subsequent 30 years compared to $3100 in the previous three decades. 19 And according to Freedom House, the number of people now living in complete or relative freedom reached 130 nations compared to 80 at the height of the Cold War, bringing additional billions of people into the ranks of free people around the globe. 20
However, despite these positive developments, the need for the USAF nuclear deterrent remains critical. Both China and Russia continue to threaten what former Secretary of Defense Mattis described as “mayhem.” As do their rogue allies such as the DPRK, Syria and Iran and in turn their terrorist accomplices. As former Director of Central Intelligence R. James Woolsey commented shortly after the end of the Cold War, “While the Soviet bear in the Cold War woods may be gone, there indeed are still multiple snakes, tigers and dragons” hiding in the new woods of great power competition, representing threats that require a strong, modern and credible US nuclear 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.
1 Maj Gen Roger W. Burg, USAF (Ret), America’s Nuclear Backbone: The Value of ICBMS and the New Ground
Based Strategic Deterrent”, Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, January 2017,
2 Wilson Brissett, “Replacing Minuteman”, Air Force Magazine, December 21, 2017,
3 Chairman Adam Smith, “Trim budget fat in America’s nuclear triad”, Defense News, March 12,2019,
Https://www.defensenews.com › congress › 2019/03/12 › smit.
4 Rep. Adam Smith, “On US Nuclear Policy”, Transcript of Remarks, October 24,2019, Ploughshares Fund Briefing
on the Future of US Nuclear Policy, https://ploughshares.org/issues-analysis/article/rep-adam-smith-us-nuclear-
5 Peter Huessy, “Weekly Ear Report”, July 30, 2019, unpublished available from the author. See also Matt Korda,
“Democrats May Fund Trump’s Nuclear Modernization Plan Without a Fight”, Forbes, June 30, 2020,
6 Peter Huessy, “Nuclear Policy: Whatever Happened to Common Sense?”, Gatestone Institute, July 7, 2020,
7 Gen. David Goldfein, Chief of Staff, USAF, “A Conversation”, Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, April 1,
8 Peter Huessy, “The Case for a 21 st Century Deterrent”, The Gatestone Institute, March 22, 2016,
https://www.gatestoneinstitute.org/7628/modern-nuclear-deterrent and Peter Huessy, “The Ability to Retaliate”,
Gatestone Insitute, July 17,2013, https://www.gatestoneinstitute.org/3856/deterrence-retaliation and Peter Huessy,
“The Real Cost of Nuclear Deterrence, The Gatestone Institute, February 8,206,
10 Matt Korda, “Congress Should Hit Pause on the New ICBM”, April 21, 2020,
11 Gen. John Hyten, “Symposium Remarks”, Space and Missile Command Symposium, August 7, 2018,
12 Gen. David Goldfein, Chief of Staff, USAF, “A Conversation”, Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, April 1,
13 Gen. David Goldfein, Chief of Staff, USAF, “A Conversation”, Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, April 1,
14 Constance Baroudes and Peter Huessy, “Why We Still Need Those Nuclear Missile Silos”, April 14, 2016,
15 Mark Schneider, “Russia’s Nuclear Weapons: Doctrine, Forces and Modernization”, Real Clear Defense, March
16 Peter Huessy, “Nuclear Obsolescence”, Real Clear Defense, March 23, 2017,
17 Adm. Richard W. Mies, USN (ret.), “Strategic Deterrence in the 21 st Century”, Undersea Warfare, Spring 2012,
19 I calculated these numbers from a considerable amount of material from the World Bank; the World Bank income
figures are also estimated but are roughly close to the numbers contained in this essay, taking into account I had to
20 I used information from Freedom House; their index of freedom is a relative assessment and Freedom House does
use its judgment as to whether a nation is free, partially free, and not free, https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-