Since the 1960s, the nuclear triad has served as the bedrock of American national security. The triad represents nuclear deterrence in-depth for the nation: intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM); nuclear-equipped bomber aircraft; and sea-launched ballistic missiles. Yet, over the last 30 years, U.S. nuclear modernization programs were truncated, deferred, or outright canceled in favor of other priorities. Now, having put off modernization for decades, nearly every part of our nuclear triad is serving well beyond its original service life.
That might be bad enough, but the circumstances today are dire. Russia is pursuing multiple nuclear weapon modernization programs. China is developing its own nuclear triad. And North Korea and Iran continue to pursue their own destabilizing nuclear programs. The U.S. must stop any further delays in modernizing our geriatric nuclear forces in order to maintain a credible nuclear deterrent strategy in the face of these threats.
The good news is that senior U.S. military leaders and civilian defense officials have grown more forceful in recent years in designating nuclear force modernization a top priority. As Lieutenant General Frank Klotz, USAF (Ret.), former Under Secretary of Energy for Nuclear Security and former Commander of Air Force Global Strike Command, recently remarked: “It’s time to bite the bullet and to finally stop admiring the problem and start solving the problem.”
The bad news is the same cast of critics that argued against modernization in the past are now using the upcoming change in administration to rehash the need to modernize America’s nuclear enterprise. The focus of much of their criticism is the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) program, which will recapitalize the Minuteman III missile force that was first fielded 50 years ago. As in the past, their arguments gravitate around five key misconceptions about ICBMs that merit correction.
Misconception #1: A land-based ICBM force is superfluous since a dyad of nuclear-capable bombers and ballistic missile-launching submarines are sufficient for deterrence.
Arguments based on this misconception overlook the fact that a land-based ICBM force has unique attributes that significantly strengthen nuclear deterrence. As Admiral Charles Richard, Commander of U.S. Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM) put it, “If you take away the ICBM leg, in fact, if you take away any leg, you just took away a stack of attributes that we have found useful in the past and see being useful in the future… which means you just narrowed the range of situations that we were able to effectively deter.”
An important characteristic that the other two legs of the triad do not provide is that the ICBM force is widely dispersed across a huge swath of the country and as a result establishes a very high—and likely prohibitive—threshold for an adversary to launch a nuclear attack against the U.S. homeland. A preemptive, counterforce strike against the U.S. ICBM force requires an enemy to attack 495 hardened and dispersed ICBM facilities—450 silos and 45 launch control centers spread across five states. To strike those with a moderate to a high degree of confidence, an adversary would have to launch 900 to 1,000 nuclear warheads.
This would be a massive and unambiguous nuclear ballistic missile attack guaranteeing an overwhelming U.S. response from the other two legs of the triad—Air Force bombers and Navy submarines. This reality significantly complicates—and deters—a potential aggressor’s attack.
As Admiral Richard points out: “We have a triad…in part because of the flexibility it provides, the ability to hedge inside of it…what it also enables you to do is address the threat or the risks you didn’t see coming. We always built margin into our strategic forces to make sure that we could account for the unknown risks that may be out there alongside the risk that we could reasonably see.”
Misconception #2: ICBMs are inherently destabilizing because they increase the risk of our possibly ‘stumbling’ into a nuclear war.
Do ICBMs significantly increase the risk of a mistaken or accidental launch in comparison to the other two legs of the triad? No. As noted above, unlike an enemy’s targeting of the other legs of our triad, neutralizing our ICBM force would require a massive and unambiguous nuclear strike on the U.S. homeland. Furthermore, the United States maintains an overlapping network of multi-domain, multi-phenomenology sensors that jointly validate indications of a hostile missile launch to ensure that timely missile attack warning and assessment information is not susceptible to a single point of failure. Additional political-military levels of scrutiny and confirmation are also in place to prevent misidentification.
A U.S. ICBM launch can only occur after an essential series of extremely deliberate, disciplined, and cooperative actions are undertaken in proper sequence by many personnel ranging from the National Command Authority to individual ICBM launch crews. As retired Gen. Kevin Chilton, former Commander of USSTRATCOM, explains, “People who describe our ICBMs as being on ‘hair-trigger’ alert either do not know what they are talking about or are intentionally attempting to frighten the uninformed.”
Misconception #3: Extending the Minuteman III’s service life would be more cost-effective.
The most common argument voiced by critics against the GBSD program is that it would cost less to extend the current ICBM force through a service life extension program (SLEP) that would give the Minuteman III’s propellant stages new fuel cores, modernize its guidance systems, and upgrade is ground support facilities.
Yet the U.S. Air Force’s analysis of alternatives conducted in 2014 determined that the total lifecycle cost of the Minuteman III force, including the SLEP, would exceed the cost to procure and sustain the GBSD over its projected 60-year service life. Critics took issue with the Air Force’s methodology because it included the cost of building new replacement missiles as part of its cost estimate. However, doing so was sensible because the four to five live-fire tests conducted annually to ensure the missiles remain viable and safe would be depleted over time. Considering this test rate, the refurbished Minuteman III missile inventory would fall below the Department of Defense (DOD) required force of 400 operationally deployed ICBMs by the year 2040. By contrast, the GBSD missile inventory would remain above 400 through 2075. Hence, new Minuteman III missiles had to be included in any honest cost assessment.
Most importantly, the U.S. needs a viable threat to be effective. As General Chilton has pointed out, “for deterrence to be effective…both capability and the will to use it must be made believable in the mind of the adversary.” The 1970s-era Minuteman IIIs were not designed for today’s operating environments that now include electronic warfare, cybernetic countermeasures, and advanced missile interceptor threats. A retaliatory weapon—whether nuclear or conventional, ballistic or otherwise—must be able to reach its designated target to be a credible, effective deterrent. If it cannot, it is useless.
“Further Minuteman III life extension is not cost-effective nor will it provide a weapon system capable of adapting to advancing technology and changing adversary threats,” said then-Commander of USSTRATCOM, Gen. John Hyten in testimony before the House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee in 2019. Only GBSD is the right choice because it would answer current and expected threats and cost about the same as extending the life of the Minuteman III.
Misconception #4: There is no rush for a Minuteman III replacement.
It is foolhardy to believe there is no urgency to this requirement. The GBSD is literally a just-in-time replacement for the Minuteman III; there is no margin remaining for further delay.
Elements of the guidance system, solid rocket motor, and propulsion system rocket engine in the current Minuteman III inventory cannot be refurbished nor easily replaced. As a result, the U.S. may not be able to support the required ICBM force of 400 operationally deployed missiles very far beyond 2030. Delaying the GBSD by just a couple of years would force the Air Force to develop, manufacture, test, and certify replacements for some critical Minuteman III components resulting in new costs estimated between $6 billion to $8 billion.
Alternatively, the Air Force could simply accept an ICBM inventory shortfall or keep existing Minuteman III missiles beyond their expiration date or by bridging the gap by means of a heavier reliance on the airborne and submarine legs of the triad. All of these options increase risks to the security of the nation. The former option increases the probability of failure during launch and the latter would require placing a number of bombers on nuclear alert status, incurring significant financial and opportunity costs, since missiles are less costly to maintain and assigning more bombers to the nuclear alert mission means they are no longer available for other critical missions.
Adding risk, raising costs, and reducing reliability do not improve national security.
Misconception #5: The GBSD award was non-competitive.
Some critics have faulted the GBSD acquisition process, arguing that because Northrop Grumman NOC was the only company to ultimately bid for the contract, the government went into negotiations in a weak position.
This is incorrect. The GBSD acquisition process was competitive. Although the Air Force received only one final proposal, Boeing BA had every opportunity to compete. Controversy over this issue is rooted in the fact that both Boeing and Northrop selected Orbital ATK to produce the solid rocket motors for their GBSD designs. When Northrop acquired Orbital ATK in 2018, Boeing notified the Air Force it would not respond to its request for proposal. The Air Force was willing to modify its GBSD competition process, but when no mutually satisfactory agreement could be reached, it chose not to delay the program further.
Northrop, meanwhile, could not be sure Boeing would not come through with a competitive bid at the last moment and had to make a competitive offer. And because only one company bid, standard government audit procedures took effect to ensure pricing was fair. Single-bid contract awards are not that unusual: About 15 percent of all DOD competitive acquisitions have just a single bidder.
The deterrent power of America’s nuclear triad is the foundation of our national defense. Preserving it is essential to securing our future.
Should we, as a nation, fail to modernize the ICBM force in a timely manner with GBSD, we would be choosing to diminish our national security and nuclear deterrence posture at the very moment when the international security environment is growing more dangerous, when Russia and China are growing more aggressive and assertive and when rogue powers are investing heavily to acquire nuclear arms.
“When the Minuteman III entered service, I was in seventh grade. I am now 61,” Gen. John Hyten, now Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, noted recently. “It must be replaced…and we must continue to invest substantially to ensure that all three legs of the nuclear triad stand strong.
Awarding the GBSD contract was a crucial milestone toward modernizing the missile force, Hyten added. “Given the critical role the GBSD will play in deterring China and Russia, we can’t rest until we deliver this capability to the field.”