America Doesn’t Need Ground-Based Nukes
Having ground-based nuclear weapons exposes America and the world to unnecessary risks.
When news first broke last month of a Chinese observation balloon hovering 60,000 feet above Montana, a simple question emerged during the ensuing national uproar: Why Montana?
Montana, along with Wyoming and North Dakota, is home to America’s nuclear intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) silos. With a range of at least 6,000 miles and the ability to carry up to three nuclear warheads each, these 400 Minuteman III ICBMs make up an impressive arsenal.
They are also completely unnecessary for national security.
Beginning in the 1960s, the United States developed a triad of methods to deliver a nuclear strike on the Soviets: ground-based missiles, submarine-launched missiles and heavy bombers. Although the Soviet Union collapsed over three decades ago, this basic nuclear posture has remained unchanged.
“The question looming in the background about nuclear posture is, ‘A posture to do what?’” notes Jasen Castillo, an expert on nuclear weapons at the think tank Defense Priorities.
The first priority of the nuclear posture must be simply to deter a nuclear attack on the United States by making the consequences of an American response so devastating that no country would consider such an attack worth it.
Some officials envision ICBMs serving as a "missile sponge" in this context. The existence of hundreds of ICBMs would force a foe ambushing the United States to need to strike each silo at least once to avoid retaliation from any surviving missile.
However, such an attack would be suicidal for any nation even if the United States had no ground-based nukes.
Most of America’s fourteen nuclear-capable ballistic-missile submarines are continuously at sea, each one virtually unfindable and able to launch a sufficient number of nuclear missiles to destroy twenty enemy cities by itself. The Air Force’s ninety-six nuclear-capable bombers will also soon add the most advanced class of stealth bomber yet to its ranks with the new B-21 Raider.
ICBMs aren’t just unnecessary for deterrence. The risk of strategic miscalculation they present is appalling.
As former Secretary of Defense William Perry has pointed out, ground-based nukes present a use-it-or-lose-it conundrum. If a country began a nuclear attack, U.S. ICBMs could only be launched before those incoming missiles destroyed them. If the attack were a false alarm, America would unintentionally start a nuclear war. Missiles cannot be recalled like bombers and subs.
Former Secretary of Defense James Mattis has also raised this issue, advising Congress to consider if it is “time to reduce the triad to a dyad” by “removing the land-based missiles” to “reduce the false-alarm danger.”
Despite these expert warnings, plans for new ground-based nukes are pressing ahead. Northrop Grumman is set to deliver the Minuteman III’s replacement missile in 2029 in an upgrade slated to cost about $100 billion.
Given their weak strategic justification, strong miscalculation potential, and exorbitant modernization costs, it is time America gave up ground-based nukes in favor of bombers and subs. America can comfortably accomplish the mission of deterrence without shouldering the unnecessary risks and costs of ICBMs.
But does dismantling ground-based nukes make sense as China reportedly builds more?
“China is developing ICBMs because they worry a lot about the survivability of their nuclear forces in the event of a first strike by the U.S.” explains Defense Priorities' Castillo. “Since their bombing force is a joke and their submarine force is a punchline to a joke, they’re building missiles.”
American bombers and submarines still give China every reason to believe they would not be able to escape crushing retaliation for any first-strike attempt on the U.S.
But what about Russia? Does the calculus for fewer ICBMs change after Russia’s suspension of its participation in the New START nuclear-arms-control treaty? Not at all, because this isn’t a novel situation.
Russia withdrew from New START’s predecessor, the START II treaty, in 2002. The U.S. unilaterally shrunk the ICBM force anyways. America scrapped all fifty of the M.X. Peacekeeper ICBMs and their 500 nuclear warheads because both military and political leaders no longer saw a need for them. No Russian first-strike attempt followed.
American submarines and bombers are also able to hold Russia at even greater risk if not bound by the current New START limits on the number of nuclear warheads and launchers they can carry.
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Even if Russia builds up its nuclear stockpile, America can achieve sufficient deterrence without relying on delivery mechanisms that are subject to use-it-or-lose-it pressure. This inherent danger was on full display in 1979 and 1980, when four separate incidents of computer glitches generated a false warning of a massive incoming Soviet missile attack. These episodes forced the White House to contemplate in a window of mere minutes the irretrievable action of launching ICBMs before they were destroyed.
Retiring mistake-prone ICBMs is an excellent message to a paranoid Moscow and a jittery Beijing that Washington seeks to avoid a tragic escalation. Better yet, adopting a more restrained grand strategy that rules out any first strike would clarify the inherently defensive nature of America’s nuclear posture.
By junking ICBMs, America gains a nuclear force that is just as lethal but more controllable, more survivable, and more useful. To avoid both catastrophic miscalculations and a colossal waste of taxpayer money, it’s past time to get rid of these Cold War relics. America and the world will be safer without them.